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8 Upper

Barry Barry Good

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/3/2001

For once, I hope this column will be out of date by the time anyone reads it. I'm writing on Monday, with the San Francisco Giants taking the day off. The Giants will be in Houston Tuesday night, as this newspaper rolls off the presses, and it will gladden my heart if Barry Bonds hits his 70th home run in that game, and his 71st, and even his 72nd if he's so inclined.

As I write, though, Bonds has only 69 home runs--"only" the way Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx "only" got 58, when Babe Ruth's big 60 still cast its big shadow. Bonds has a week left to match or pass Mark McGwire's mark of 70. There is no such thing as being "within reach" of the home-run record. Either you break it or you don't.

And it's easy not to hit a home run. Witness Sept. 30 in San Francisco. The game was on ESPN, so the whole country could share the moment. The sun shone on the Giants' fancy little ballpark; the fans were splashing around in McCovey Cove past the right-field fence, waiting for a home-run ball. And the San Diego Padres marked the occasion by throwing Bonds exactly one strike, which he stung for a sharp groundout against the overshifted infield in the third inning. His other three times at the plate, he took a pair of four-pitch walks and got hit by a pitch. He was on deck when the Padres closed out a 5-4 win. Officially, he was 0-for-1, and another game was gone.

If pitchers keep ducking Bonds for the rest of the season--there's suspicion that the Dodgers, San Francisco's final opponent, may do it out of pure spite--it will be a shame. This doesn't really have to do with the record itself. McGwire's steroid-fueled demolition of the old record, in 1998, made the whole home-run-tallying business seem kind of cheap and ridiculous. As I've written before, I'd love to see Bonds, an actual running-and-fielding ballplayer, usurp the oaf McGwire's one claim to fame. But I'd rather Major League Baseball had started using deader balls and drug testing around 1995, to keep us out of the whole 70-home-run business in the first place.

No, the point of pulling for Bonds to get the big dumb number is this: It would testify, in terms any nitwit can grasp, to just how good a season he's having. By this point, one or two or five more home runs won't make a substantive difference. Whether he breaks the record or not, Bonds' 2001 performance has already blown away McGwire's in 1998, Sammy Sosa's in 1998 and 1999, and any other season by any other slugger in this age of stat inflation. He is hitting like Babe Ruth.

What Ruth himself might do, lifting weights and swatting a glorified golf ball around cozy 21st-century ballparks, is strictly a matter for the imagination--as is the question of how Willie Mays or Frank Robinson would do under today's juicy hitting conditions. All we know is what modern players can do. In 1998, McGwire supplemented his 70 homers with 21 doubles, no triples, and 162 walks, for a .470 on-base percentage and a .752 slugging percentage, the seventh-best slugging percentage in history. Through Monday, Bonds had 32 doubles, two triples, and 167 walks. His on-base percentage was .505, and he was slugging .846. Only G.H. Ruth has ever slugged .800 or better; he put up .847 and .846 in 1920 and 1921. Till Bonds, no one else had come close.

This past weekend, with Bonds' slugging percentage at .835, Washington Post baseball sage Thomas Boswell tried to put the figures into perspective: "For [Joe] DiMaggio, in his best year, to slug .836, he'd have needed to get to bat 32 more times. And hit 32 straight home runs."

But then Boswell declared that the National League MVP should be . . . Sammy Sosa. Sosa, you see, has 149 RBIs to Bonds' 132, and has scored 139 runs to Bonds' 119. Despite Bonds' spectacular personal numbers, Sosa has produced more runs for his team. That, Boswell stated portentously, is the paradox of Barry Bonds.

Bosh. The paradox of Barry Bonds is how he can make a veteran sportswriter spout such horseshit. To bat in runs and score runs, you need your teammates to help out. Boswell accuses Bonds of "producing least when it matters most." But when would that be? With runners on base, Bonds is outslugging Sosa .891 to .721. With runners in scoring position, Bonds leads .943 to .672. Close and late in the game? Bonds .841, Sosa .634.

But the knights of the keyboard, who usually root for anything that's winning, have it in for Bonds this year. Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated took an ax to him in late August, accusing him of being selfish, being estranged from his teammates, and daring to employ a personal PR man (just like Cal Ripken Jr. does). The New York Times' Murray Chass devoted a whole column to Bonds' supposed failure to leg a double into a triple--in an inning in which he scored anyway, in a game the Giants won.

This is because Bonds has a long history of being cold to reporters, and reporters cling to the childish belief that manners and morals have something to do with winning. Here's what wins ball games: hitting the ball hard, or taking a walk. On Sunday, Bonds did the latter, reaching base three times out of four. To Boswell, this makes him a stat-padding "supreme soloist." If the rest of the Giants had been exactly that selfish--two walks and a hit-by-pitch for every out--they would have beaten San Diego, by my calculation. By a score of 48-5.

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