Like him or not, Bonds had super year

ON BASEBALL

October 07, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Barry Bonds has been the picture of decorum during the final days of his pursuit of the single-season home run record, deferring to reigning home run king Mark McGwire at every opportunity and insisting that his individual achievements not detract from the greater purpose of helping the San Francisco Giants reach the playoffs.

No one bought it, of course. It will take more than a few well-chosen words at his finest hour to change an image that he has created - quite willingly - over a 17-year professional baseball career.

Barry is always going to be about Barry, but that shouldn't stop anyone from cheering for him during his greatest season, or creating any pretext for devaluing his - or McGwire's - home run heroics.

The season he has fashioned is nothing short of incredible. The home run total is amazing enough, but reaching 72 (or more) homers in a season in which he also shattered Babe Ruth's all-time record for walks leaves little room to question the validity of his accomplishment.

Somehow, he proved that it's still possible to hit home runs even when nobody wants to pitch to you.

The Houston Astros tried to dodge him for three games after he hit No. 69 against the San Diego Padres last weekend. Their overt attempts to avoid him at times bordered on the ridiculous, but Bonds managed to find that one high fastball that he could drive downtown.

The baseball world may regret that the better-loved McGwire no longer stands at the top of the home run heap, but let's face it: The degree of difficulty for Bonds' performance was far greater than McGwire's in 1998, if only because McGwire raised the bar so much higher after breaking Roger Maris' record.

McGwire didn't have anyone walking him during the final days of the season. In fact, the Montreal Expos took such a devil-may-care attitude toward Big Mac on the final weekend that he hit five home runs in the last three games of the season to distance himself from friendly rival Sammy Sosa.

In Houston, Bonds was reduced to waiting for that odd at-bat in which the weight of the pennant race wasn't riding on the outcome. He is right to look out for his teammates, because he wouldn't have been able to tie the record if they hadn't blown out the Astros on Thursday night and made his final at-bat meaningless in the context of the pennant stretch.

The Astros ended up with the worst of both worlds. They lost all three games of a crucial series - largely because they were preoccupied with preventing Bonds from going deep - then gave up a historic home run, anyway.

The Dodgers, who had a lot less to lose, went right after Bonds and allowed record-breaking home runs in his first two at-bats on Friday night. But they ended up winning the game, anyway.

Bonds hit the record-tying and record-breaking homers so far that they each should have counted twice, but he already has guaranteed himself a fourth National League Most Valuable Player trophy and a place among the four or five best players of all time.

This is one time when he could be forgiven for tooting his own horn, but he has handled himself with conspicuous humility. Whether it's authentic or not, he deserves credit for the effort.

MVP not in the Cards

Bonds seems like a slam dunk to be the MVP, but it is not as if there are no other candidates. Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez has had an incredible all-around season for a team that has stood atop the NL West for most of the second half, and league RBI leader Sosa has hit 60-plus home runs for an unprecedented third time.

There's even a solid case to be made for the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols, but he'll have to settle for Rookie of the Year.

The Cardinals would have been in real trouble if Pujols had not emerged as one of the top run-producers in the game. McGwire's frequent absences could have created a huge offensive void, but Pujols filled it with a magnificent all-around performance that established him as one of the pivotal players in the NL pennant race.

Tough decision in AL

It won't be nearly so easy to fill out the MVP ballot in the American League, where the Seattle Mariners have two legitimate candidates to go with last year's winner (Oakland's Jason Giambi) and, perhaps, Cleveland Indians outfielder Juan Gonzalez.

Ichiro Suzuki clearly has been the Mariners' catalyst from the start, which should garner him some first-place votes. Teammate Bret Boone has been the run-production machine that has driven the club's winning chemistry.

Who should it be? My vote goes to Boone, with Suzuki showing up among the top three names of the 10-slot ballot.

Boone entered the weekend with a .333 batting average, 116 runs, 35 home runs and 137 RBIs. Suzuki leads the league with 240 hits, a .351 average and 55 stolen bases. He clearly set the wheels in motion for Seattle's amazing season.

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