Blow-by-blow comparison says Bonds had it tougher, by a long shot

May 12, 2006|By RICK MAESE

"Baseball changes through the years. It gets milder."

- Babe Ruth

Call him the Sultan of Swat. Or the Colossus of Clout. Or the Wali of Wallop. But Babe Ruth was hardly a Prince of Prognostication.

Baseball has changed in the 71 years since Ruth last circled the bases, but "milder" is the last word any student of the game would use to describe the transformation. Barry Bonds is on the verge of tying Ruth for the No. 2 position on the all-time home run list. But that's just numbers.

In fact, what Bonds has managed to do with a 32-ounce stick of maple would blow the Babe out of the batter's box. Let's suspend belief for a second and forget that B*nds likely has had chemical assistance in thrashing his way through the record books. Let's do what we're not supposed to do and compare eras. As easy as it is to dislike Bonds, his accomplishments over the past two decades are far more impressive than what Ruth managed in the game's early years.

Here's the Ruthian defense: The Babe played in bigger ballparks, had a shorter season and faced rules that stole from his home run totals. In Ruth's day, the home run ball had to not just clear the fence inside the foul pole, but also had to land "fair" in the bleachers. A coming book, Babe Ruth: Fact Transcends Myth by Bill Jenkinson, suggests the rule cost Ruth at least 50 home runs. Jenkinson asserts that Ruth should have retired with an estimated 1,150 home runs.

Well, let's play fast and loose with the numbers then. Based on my unscientific research, if you were somehow able to quantum-leap Bonds into the 1920s, you'd be looking at a player who could hit 100 homers every year - 150 if you quantum-leaped him some clear and/or cream.

BALCO controversies aside, there's a laundry list of reasons that reveal the discrepancies in the two players' accomplishments.

First of all, Ruth's figures were inflated by the competition. He didn't face the game's best. He faced the game's whitest. Today, 40 percent of the players check the minority box. More than a quarter of them are foreign-born.

Ruth's defenders want to bring up the difference in ballparks, which isn't fair. Bonds began his career at Three Rivers Stadium, which was never considered a sluggers' park, and his first several years in San Francisco were played at Candlestick Park, where cold, swirling winds turned many home runs into routine fly balls.

In his first years wearing pinstripes, Ruth was aiming at a Polo Grounds fence located just 257 feet away from home plate. And it's no wonder they called Yankee Stadium the House That Ruth Built. With a right-field foul pole just 295 feet from the plate, no doubt Ruth had his hands on those blueprints. And don't forget those road parks: Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia all played in ballparks the size of lunch boxes.

Ruth also had the benefit of sunlight. You don't think Bonds would like that luxury? He's a better power hitter during the day, but three-quarters of his career at-bats have come under the lights. If he played all of his games in the afternoon, as the Sultan of Suntan Lotion did, statistics suggest that Bonds would've passed Hank Aaron for the top spot on the home run list just this week.

How about those players batting around Ruth? He had four other Hall of Fame players in the same lineup in the late 1920s. How much better would Bonds have been with a guy like Lou Gehrig hitting behind him? Pitchers have no problem giving Bonds a free pass - in 2004, he was walked 232 times; Ruth walked more than 150 times just once in his career. Andy Van Slyke and Edgardo Alfonzo just don't sound as impressive as the Iron Horse, huh? Let's face it, without Bonds, Jeff Kent could barely stay on his motorcycle.

We could go on and on about early-20th-century baseball - limited East Coast travel, cozy sleeper cars and the luxury of facing a pitcher who was surely nursing a bootlegged hangover - but there's one difference that stands above the rest: the specialization of pitching.

Ruth stepped into the batter's box and more often than not, he knew he was facing an arm made of cookie dough.

Strategically, the game was archaic. It was a much milder time. While Ruth would get four looks at the same pitcher, Bonds typically gets only two. His final couple of at-bats each night are usually against a fresh and rested arm. How many 99-mph fastballs you think Ruth faced in the ninth?

Ruth's best single season was 1927, when he hit 60 homers. That year, in the eight-team American League, starting pitchers threw 584 complete games, led by the Chicago White Sox's 85. Last season, 85 was the combined total in the 14-team American League (the Orioles, for the sake of comparison, had just two all season).

Conversely, there were only 115 saves in all of 1927. Last season, American League relievers totaled 588.

Pitchers didn't throw as hard back then. They weren't as athletic or as strong and didn't have the same palette of pitches from which to choose. In fact, today's typical game has 2 1/2 times more strikeouts than the 1927 version.

This isn't to take anything away from Ruth, who on any given day was 10 cheeseburgers, 20 beers and a dozen homers better than anyone else from his era. He's an important part of this city's lore and the most important iconic character in baseball history.

It's more a testament to Bonds' superhuman achievements, which he has managed to hide under a cloud of chemicals and controversy.

Deserving or not, Bonds will pass Ruth on the game's most hallowed list. He's not a modern-day Bambino, though. History will suggest that Bonds is just now matching his pinstriped predecessor. But competing in a more difficult era has already put Bonds' accomplishments well ahead of Ruth's.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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