Age, injuries could make Bonds' climb to 755 a steep one

The Chase

May 21, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

An extra 20 pounds sagged on his already massive body, and he could barely move in the outfield. Minor injuries and illnesses cost him games, and he went whole weeks without a hit. His jersey said "Braves" instead of the familiar "New York."

At the age of 41, Babe Ruth, the most phenomenal player baseball had ever seen, was hanging on.

Until a glorious Saturday in May. Ruth homered in the first inning. He homered again in the third. He merely singled in the fifth. But in the seventh, one of his great, sweeping swings connected, and he sent a ball clear over the double-decked roof at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field.

Two weeks later, he was out of the game. Glory and oblivion stand that close together for old ballplayers.

Maybe Ruth could've told Barry Bonds a thing or two about the road he's traveling.

Now that Bonds has tied the Babe's career homer total, only Hank Aaron and the great 755 lie ahead. Those 41 homers would've been a season's work or less for the Bonds of two years ago.

But as he hobbles toward the game's most coveted record, the end of his career is speeding toward him from the other direction. Is it approaching him faster than he's approaching Aaron?

History says that even the greatest players lose whatever made them special by their early 40s. Doctors who believe Bonds took steroids say the drop-off would be more pronounced in his case if testing forced him to stop using. Three surgeries on the knee he uses to stabilize his swing didn't help.

"I think he's coming apart before our eyes," said Bill Howard, a surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital. "And it only accelerates. Within a year, he could be done."

The visual evidence isn't good. Bonds can barely move from side to side in the outfield. He looked like a grandpa when he tried to bend for a ground ball that scooted by during a recent game. At the plate, he still plants his massive frame over the inside corner and cocks the maple bat behind his left shoulder, twitching it like a cat about to pounce.

But when Bonds whips his lumber around to meet a pitch, the ball no longer soars on an inevitable arc to the water in right field. If he makes solid contact, it may carry over the wall in center. He remains a powerful man (he crushed a homer to right in Philadelphia on May 7 for No. 713), but more often this season, his flies have died in the outfield.

The signs of decay are apparent to any retired slugger.

Former Oriole Boog Powell hit balls as far as Ruth and Bonds in his youth. But like many stars, he endured a rapid decline during which he dropped from league Most Valuable Player to injury-hampered part-timer in a few seasons.

The difference between great and out of baseball isn't much, Powell said.

"You just don't seem to quite get at the ball," he remembered. "You're just a little bit behind. You just tick it. And that pitch five years earlier, psssst, it would've been gone. ... It's just hard."

It happens to most great athletes, eventually.

Muhammad Ali claimed he had gotten himself in shape one last time to reclaim the heavyweight crown from his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes. But a nation cringed as "The Greatest" wobbled against the ropes, unable to dodge Holmes' jabs and straight rights as they popped his head back over and over.

Michael Jordan got the ball on a breakaway in his final All-Star Game and launched toward the rim as he had so many times. But the ball slammed against iron and bounced harmlessly away, leaving Jordan to grin bemusedly at time's impact on his legs.

Willie Mays took the national stage for a final time as a 42-year-old New York Met. He spent the 1973 World Series stumbling around the outfield and slapping two singles in part-time action.

"It doesn't take a lot in his sport or any professional sport," Howard said. "The old phrase is that you lose a step. Well, you lose a step and you're gone."

Bonds' knee surgeries have clearly diminished his swing, Howard said, because the lead leg is a key shock absorber as energy transfers from body to bat to ball.

And that doesn't account for the possible role of steroids in Bonds' career.

"The only reason he's gotten to where he is, is because he's had help," Howard said. "So he's got something additional working against him, because that help might be gone now."

The average player peaks in his late 20s, experiences a gentle decline in his early 30s and sees his performance fall off rapidly in his mid-30s.

That was Powell's experience. He hit 35 homers and was the American League MVP at age 28. But he hurt his shoulder and averaged 17 homers the next four seasons. He rebounded to hit 27 at age 33, but he hurt his ankle breaking up a fight the next year and was out of baseball the year after that.

Age affords benefits such as extra guile, Powell said, but every player reaches a point where physical decline overrides all.

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