Bonds nears peak, footing unsure

Place in baseball history dulled by present, despite his approach to 600 HRs

August 08, 2002|By Jack O'Connell | Jack O'Connell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One milestone after another greets Barry Bonds. Less than 16 months since he became the 17th member of baseball's 500 home run club, Bonds is about to join an even more elite group.

Bonds, with 599 home runs after hitting one Tuesday night, is on the verge of becoming the fourth to hit 600 home runs, joining his godfather, Willie Mays, who reached that milestone with his last home run of the 1969 season. Mays finished his career four years later with 660. The other two members, of course, are the lone members of a 700 club that has nothing to do with Pat Robertson - Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).

That's pretty good company. Aaron, Ruth and Mays have been the closest thing to a trinity in regard to slugging. For more than 30 years, this trio has resembled a pedestal similar to the platforms used at the Olympics. With the pending addition of the first new arrival since Aaron entered with his eighth home run of 1971, the question is, does Bonds belong among baseball's equivalent of Mount Rushmore?

There is a tendency to glorify baseball legends, so Bonds suffers here because he is still playing. Any negative aspects or shortcomings of Aaron, Ruth and Mays have long been submerged by power of myth. What remains are the statistics that validate their remarkable careers, and the stories told over and over about the greatness of each and the esteem in which contemporaries held them.

Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants, has plenty of highlights, too, including two records he took from Ruth last year - slugging percentage and walks in a season. He also eclipsed Mark McGwire's 3-year-old single-season home run record, hitting 73, and became the first player named Most Valuable Player four times.

Yet, in evaluating Bonds' place among the greats, the fact he is playing in an era of muscle building and inflated offensive statistics could be a deterrent in considering him worthy of comparisons to Aaron, Ruth and Mays. The controversy surrounding claims by former MVPs Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco of rampant abuse of anabolic steroids in baseball has led to speculation about Bonds, whose 230-pound body has grown larger in recent years.

Bonds, 38, denies taking steroids but has admitted to using creatine, a dietary supplement favored by many players, and the intake of amino acids to "replenish the body." Bonds does not drink or smoke and is not a night-lifer, attributes that would ordinarily earn him approval (even though the opposite earned Ruth an enviable reputation in the Roaring Twenties). But his moody personality has turned off even his teammates.

Aaron and Mays were not the cheeriest guys in their clubhouses when they played, either. But teammates considered them leaders. Among Mays' teammates was Bobby Bonds, Barry's father. Among Aaron's teammates was New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, who played against Mays and Bobby Bonds and is an admirer of Barry Bonds as a player.

"I don't think anything Barry has done should be diminished," Torre said. "We're talking about someone a manager would consider walking intentionally with no one on base."

In 1998, three years before McGwire's home run record was broken, then-Arizona Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter walked Bonds with the bases loaded.

"Mark McGwire was a great home run hitter, but you could get him out. Make a mistake, and he'd kill you, but Big Mac could be pitched to. There is no way to pitch to Barry Bonds," Torre said.

"Barry didn't just start getting good," Mays said recently during Hall of Fame induction weekend. "He has been a great player for a long time. He won his first MVP award more than 10 years ago [1990]. Pitching in the majors isn't what it used to be, but everybody faces the same pitchers, and nobody else is hitting 600 home runs."

"Every great player takes advantage of his environment," said Tom Seaver, a Hall of Famer and three-time Cy Young Award winner. "Bonds is no different. Years ago, pitchers had the leeway to move hitters off the plate. Some guys like Frank Robinson took the bruises and were not intimidated, but hitters weren't as comfortable at the plate as they are now. The offensive statistics show that, but I still think Bonds is on another level."

Robinson, now managing the Montreal Expos, is one of the 13 players with 500 or more home runs whom Bonds has eclipsed in the past two seasons. The former Oriole dropped to fifth on the all-time list when Bonds hit his 587th home run June 2.

"I kind of liked being in fourth place," Robinson said, laughing. "You never want to sound like an old-timer going on about your era being better, but the game today doesn't have the quality of pitching we saw in the '60s and '70s because of increased expansion. It's a friendlier atmosphere for hitters. Today's ballparks are better suited for home runs, and until last year the umpires weren't calling high strikes. Some of them still aren't."

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