Bonds or the Babe? Readers chime in on greatest player argument
Posted: Wednesday September 22, 2004 12:25PM; Updated: Wednesday September 22, 2004 9:56PM
Babe Ruth swiped a few bags in his day, but he was no Barry Bonds in the speed department.
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Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, steroids, MVP. OK, folks, are those enough hot buttons for one week?
The mailbag runneth over in response to my take on the great Bonds. As usual, the e-mails were pointed, well-informed and constructive, which make for a great sports argument, not just banal name-calling. So thanks for adding to the dialogue.
The great part about comparing players and eras is that there is no scientifically proven correct answer. You can't change facts -- the dimensions of Yankee Stadium when it opened in 1923, for instance. But you can shape an opinion based on the facts you choose. You want to tell me Bonds is the greatest player of all time? Great. I may not agree, but I do concede that you can present an argument for him that makes sense. Now, you want to sell me on Mike de la Hoz as the greatest ever, and we've got issues. Read on.
It's funny how you mentioned Ruth's pitching, but forgot to mention Barry has 506 stolen bases and eight Gold Gloves. Why is this if you are comparing all-around games? The only thing Barry hasn't done as a hitter is get 3,000 hits. There is no question this guy is the greatest baseball player ever, the Michael Jordan of baseball. -- Mark, Terre Haute, Ind.
I don't have much doubt that Bonds at his best was a better baserunner and defensive player than Ruth. But Ruth did steal 123 bases (his success rate of 51 percent, though, was poor) and he did play defense very well. Bonds did not pitch at all. The two most valuable skills in baseball are hitting and pitching, and Ruth did both at Hall of Fame-caliber levels. Defensive and baserunning skills are much further down the food chain in importance. You can't carve an elite career on one of those skills alone, with the possible exception of a shortstop like Ozzie Smith.
In the debate of Bonds versus Ruth for best power hitter of all time, I never hear the subject of ballpark size come up. When Babe played his first season in Yankee Stadium, the center-field wall was 500 feet from home plate! -- Marc Boyd, Lexington, Ky.
Here are the dimensions for Yankee Stadium when it opened in 1923: Right-field line: 294.75 feet. Deep right center: 429. Dead center: 490. Deep left center: 460. Left-field line: 280.58. Great park for a pull hitter. Terrible park for a gap hitter. For the record, Ruth hit more home runs on the road over his career (367) than in his home parks (347). And give Bonds his due; SBC Park has been one of toughest home run parks in baseball since it opened.
People often comment about how Bonds can control a game like no other player. Wouldn't the Babe have changed the dynamics of the game even more? The guy often had more home runs than entire teams. Just because intentional walks may not have been as fashionable back then, I believe a pitcher and manager would lose more sleep over the prospect of facing Babe than Barry. -- Chloe, Boston
Ruth did change the game, making the home run a true weapon like the forward pass in football. A new generation of players learned to swing for the fences rather than choking up on fat-handled bats and making contact. You're right that intentional walks are more fashionable now, but I wonder if Bonds had a Lou Gehrig behind him -- say, Vladimir Guerrero -- would he be walked just as much? I don't think so.
As a member of the "Barry-is-a-Boor" army, I find an aspect of his winning a seventh MVP award ironically pleasing. Bonds' legacy is almost certain to include the fact that he won more MVPs than any player in his sport's history yet never led his team to a championship. And that, Mr. Verducci, is the biggest indictment on this most selfish of superstars. He has always been about what's best for Barry, and he has achieved his aim with profound success. Remind yourself, though, as you weigh his position among the all-time greats, how he ranks when it comes to championships. Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Musial ... all champions at least once. It would seem Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds have a link that goes beyond their disturbingly mean character. Enjoy Albert Pujols' trophy while you still can, Barry. -- Frank Murtaugh, Memphis, Tenn.
Well, remember that the Giants were six outs away from a world championship in 2002 before the bullpen gave it up. I don't ascribe that failure to Bonds. Was Ernie Banks a loser? Clay Bellinger a winner? So I don't think it's fair to judge somebody that way. I will say this: when Bonds was last a free agent, before re-signing with the Giants, the Yankees had no interest whatsoever in adding him to their team. Zero. Why? Team chemistry concerns. Nobody else stepped up, either. And it's rare when you hear of his teammates offering testimonials about Bonds regarding anything but his talent.
I agree that if definitive evidence is found that Bonds has taken any performance-enhancing drugs, it will taint his career. However, I have two questions: Why do people care so much about drugs when technology, including new medical procedures (joint reconstruction and laser eye surgery) also have improved athletes' performances? Also, are you or anyone else sure that the Babe or athletes from the 1950s also were free from performance-enhancing drugs? Sources like Jim Bouton's Ball Four suggest that many players were using pick-me-ups like amphetamines back then. -- Kevin Coleman, Arlington, Va.
Great questions. I'm sure they are issues many fans deal with. I know there must be many fans who don't care what players take. As far as the drugs go, there is a clear delineation between new medical procedures and banned substances: the drugs we are talking about are illegal. So we have clearly drawn legal and ethical boundaries, in and out of sport.
Tom Verducci will answer select questions from SI.com users in his Baseball Mailbag.
Second, if you don't care what athletes take, then you don't care if outcomes are justly earned. Sport becomes a matter of may the team with the best chemist win, especially as we get to next generation gene alteration. And you also don't care about children. Because like it or not -- and the andro sales in 1998 proved this -- kids will imitate their sports heroes. And even steroid proponents in the union admit that steroid use by males who have not reached full body structure (and females of any development stage) is certain health disaster.
As for the Babe on steroids, forget it. He finished his career in 1935, well before Nazi Germany began the first institutionalized use of steroids with humans (for non-sport purposes). Amphetamines have been around a long, long time in sports in one version or another. There is no evidence that it has an anabolic effect like steroids, but does jolt the nervous system into a heightened state. And people don't seem to care about them.
When I wrote about steroids in baseball in SI, I wrote a companion piece about amphetamine use, which is much, much more common. And of all the hundreds of questions I took on talk shows and from fans, not a single one was about amphetamines. Remember the Pittsburgh drug trials in the 1980s, when players testified about "red juice?" Or the Philadelphia drug trials in which a doctor supplied the Phillies with amphetamines? No, didn't think so. Players call the act of playing baseball without some kind of stimulant "playing naked," and very few players play naked.
Will Carlos Delgado be the most sought-after free agent this winter? After a slow start on his return from injury, he hit .317 in August and is hitting nearly .400 in September and appears headed for another 35 HR, 100-plus RBI season. -- Phil Winch, Sarnia, Canada (Home of Mike Weir)
I've always admired Weir's game and steady swing. Too bad about the Canadian Open, though I bet he'd take a Masters win over a Canadian Open if forced to choose. Anyway, the market for Delgado will be strong, but I think Carlos Beltran is the top dog. I've got to think Delgado is most appealing to AL teams to allow for an eventual transition to DH, but I think he's got a lot of baseball left and is a classy individual, as well.
Is Angel Berroa the latest example that winning the Rookie of the Year award doesn't necessarily portend future success? Which ROY mold does he fit into, Eric Hinske (who just had a fluke year and now has turned out to be a liability for Toronto) or Carlos Beltran (who has bounced back from a sophomore dropoff and proved to be a real deal)? Considering he's already 26 and still has not had plate discipline, I suppose Berroa will face an uphill battle to prove himself again. -- Ken Anahara, Kanamachi, Japan
Funny that Hinske and Berroa were each traded by Oakland, not to mention another former AL ROY, Ben Grieve. I don't see Berroa being anywhere near Beltran's class. I'd say it's too early to write the guy off, but I do agree that his lack of plate discipline throughout his career does limit his ceiling. I'd say he looks more like Pat Listach than Beltran right now.
The recipients of Frankie Francisco's violent outburst with a chair in Oakland claim that their behavior -- the obscene remarks, the constant barrage of verbal abuse, the torrent of insults directed at visiting players -- are somehow "American tradition." I was even more disturbed to read that these cretins actually go to the ballpark planning to behave this way and consider themselves the "10th man on the team." Am I living completely out of the mainstream by suggesting they are 100 percent wrong and that, while it's great to cheer for your team, something is irretrievably lost when the game itself isn't enough to hold your attention? What a pathetic and destructive example we set when we claim that coarse, boorish behavior is now the norm. -- Doug Sanders, Howell, Mich.
Boy, I am so glad you brought this up and I probably should have addressed this in a separate column because I feel strongly about it. Let's be absolutely clear on one thing: throwing a chair into the stands is flat-out unacceptable. Period. OK, now the seperate issue: fan behavior. What kind of loser brings his wife to a game and, in front of her, gets his rocks off by insulting other men who he knows, because of protocol, are just supposed to take it and do nothing about it? Man, that's a psychologist's field day, getting inside the heads of these people and venturing into self-esteem and insecurity issues. Doug, I could not have said it any better myself. And I hope right-minded people, accompanied by family or not, make sure never to allow such crass behavior to become the norm.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.