600 and Counting
After belting his 500th homer only last season, late boomer Barry Bonds busted another milestone in his run at Hammerin' Hank
By Tom Verducci
Issue date: August 19, 2002
On a pleasant summer night in San Francisco last Friday, Barry Bonds did something the rest of us should try. No, hitting the 600th home run of a major league career is beyond the general populace, not to mention all but three other ballplayers in history. What's instructive is what Bonds did after he connected with a fastball from Pittsburgh Pirates righthander Kip Wells. Like De Kooning before a drying canvas, Bonds took a step back and admired the majesty and magnitude of his work.
A Bonds home run typically leaves nothing to doubt from the violent, noisy moment of contact. This one screamed for 421 feet before landing among the centerfield loonies of Pacific Bell Park. They clawed, pummeled and bloodied one another at the chance to own the five-ounce piece of history, at least until it could be sold to the highest bidder. And just as Bonds took a long, steady view of the moment when he joined Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays in an exclusive fraternity, so do we need to take a long view of his career.
We need to pause because Bonds is not only a late boomer, but also a mostly unembraceable presence. He has, despite his unsurpassed skills, engendered no simpatico emotions or even a nickname. After blasting 73 home runs last year in one of the greatest seasons of all time, Bonds finished third -- third! -- among outfielders in fan balloting for the All-Star Game this year, drawing less support than Ichiro or Sammy Sosa.
"People don't appreciate him," says teammate Shawon Dunston, an 18-year veteran. "We're playing with arguably the best ever, but he won't get that recognition because people say he's not nice. He's going to break [Aaron's] record. He's going to hit 800."
So step back and behold. On Friday night Bonds was again at that jewel of a ballpark beside the shimmering waters of McCovey Cove. He hit No. 500 there. He hit 71 there. He hit 600 there, as if joining Hammerin' Hank, the Babe and the Say Hey Kid was another return engagement on the tour, like Sinatra at the Mirage or Springsteen at the Garden. You half expected the crowd not only to cheer but also to flick cigarette lighters. "To be in that select group is great," Bonds said after the game, "but nothing's more satisfying than doing it in front of 40,000 fans in San Francisco."
Perspective? Bonds is the only player who broke into the big leagues in the past 47 years to hit 600 homers. If he plays another four seasons with a modest decrease in production, the 38-year-old leftfielder might retire as the alltime leader in home runs, extra-base hits, runs, walks and intentional walks (a mark he already has). Explaining how he arrived at 600 is a lesson in spontaneous combustion.
The alltime greats announce themselves early, like youthful princes born to the throne. Ruth, Ted Williams, Mays, Mickey Mantle all glowed with an unmistakable destiny from their first moments as big leaguers. Outside this regal procession is Bonds, the only man to sneak up on one of baseball's numeric Mount Everests. Ever defiant, Bonds has overturned the game's actuarial tables.
Bonds began his career as a lithe leadoff hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986. In determining Bonds's statistical twin after each of his first eight seasons, the comprehensive website Baseball-Reference.com found him to be most similar in career production by age to this mixed bag of hitters from throughout major league history: Bob Coluccio, Tom Brunansky (twice), Jack Clark (thrice), Bobby Bonds and, as recently as '93, Greg Luzinski. Two years ago Bonds wasn't even among the 10 outfielders named to major league baseball's All-Century team.
Today he ranks not only among the greatest players of all time, but also as perhaps the most feared hitter ever. Never before have pitchers avoided a batter as much as they do the lefty-swinging Bonds, who, like a supersized Danny Almonte, seems too good for his league. In 2001 pitchers walked Bonds a record 177 times, or 26.7% of his plate appearances. Through Sunday they had been even more careful this year, walking him 31.6% of the time. The respect Bonds gets is most extraordinary with runners in scoring position (47.3%), and with runners on and first base open (67.2%).
That fear factor is a late-career development. Entering this season Bonds had almost the same number of plate appearances as Williams (14 more, or 9,805 to be precise), but he had made 13% more outs and struck out 82% more often. Bonds trailed Williams by wide margins in batting average (.344 to .292), on-base percentage (.483 to .419) and slugging percentage (.634 to .585). Ruth and Williams were feared throughout their careers -- they walked in 20% or more of their plate appearances in nine and 10 seasons, respectively. Bonds has done so only four times.
"When he was younger, you were more concerned about him hitting a line drive in the gap or stealing a base than you were about him hitting a home run," says Atlanta Braves veteran lefthander Tom Glavine, against whom Bonds, at week's end, was 24 for 75 (.320) for his career. "He's a different hitter now. In fact he's a different hitter over the last five years than he was, say, when he first went to San Francisco [in 1993]. He went from a guy who would occasionally hit the mistake pitch for a home run to somebody who hits mistakes out all the time."
No batter ever has made himself this good this late in his career. How did it happen? Most evident, the 6'2", 228-pound Bonds filled out physically without losing any of the snap to one of the quickest batting strokes in the game. (He has repeatedly denied that he uses steroids and says his growth is attributable to his workout routine and nutritional supplements.) More subtly, Bonds's development as a power hitter accelerated when baseball entered this post-Camden Yards age of long-ball worship and he learned to lift the ball.
His career can be delineated into three stages. In Stage 1, from 1986 through '89, Bonds was a slasher who hit as many ground balls as he did fly balls. In Stage 2, from '90 through '97, Bonds was a consistent run producer who became a better home run hitter by getting the ball in the air more often. In those eight seasons his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio fluctuated between 71:100 and 87:100. Not coincidentally, Stage 3 began in '98, an expansion year best remembered for the McGwire-Sosa home run race, when an even bigger, smarter Bonds moved into the company of the alltime power hitters. Over this last stage his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio has decreased every full year: 63:100 (in '98), 62:100, 57:100, 56:100 (56:100 in 2002, through Sunday). In other words, he now hits almost two flies for every grounder. This transformation would not be possible without Bonds's putting more arc in his swing -- he's looking to go deep. With his added strength, many of those fly balls are sailing far beyond the fences of today's cozy retroparks.
Further, in Stage 3 Bonds has crept closer to home plate, enabling him to pull pitches on the outside half of the plate with power rather than hitting line drives to the leftfield gap. The defensive shift most teams employ against him is also a Stage 3 development. "He's so close to the plate, he can take a pitch away and turn on it," Glavine says. "If you hit him on the hands, it's almost a strike. Yet he's so quick that he kills the inside pitch. You have to pitch him inside to keep him honest, but you'd better bury it way in because if you miss [over the plate], it's gone."
In Stage 1 Bonds hit 21 home runs per season; in Stage 2, 36. Through Sunday he was on pace to slug 48 homers this year -- his average during Stage 3 -- which would give him 615 for his career at season's end. With another 48-homer season next year he would pass Mays, who finished with 660. If he continues to maintain his Stage 3 rate, Bonds would pass Ruth (714) and Aaron (755) in 2005, the year he turns 41.
Is it possible for Bonds to maintain this production at such an advanced age? In his final season (1960) Williams, at 41, hit 29 homers -- sixth in the American League -- in a much less homer-friendly, much less muscular time. In '72 Mays, at 41, hit eight homers and followed that with six the next year, his last. In '75 Aaron, at 41, hit 12 homers and bowed out the next year with 10.
If Bonds has taught us anything, it's that the arc of his career is like no other's -- especially not like Bob Coluccio's.
Issue date: August 19, 2002