Alternate history: If Barry Bonds hadn't used steroids

Think of all the possibilities for Barry Bonds if he had never chosen to take steroids following the 1998 season.

I assume, of course, Game of Shadows correctly reported that Bonds began juicing following Mark McGwire’s record-setting 70-home-run year.  Bonds was a lock for the Hall of Fame beforehand, his generation’s version of Willie Mays.  Clean, Bonds was perhaps among the ten best offensive players of all-time.  After Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, there aren’t too many hitters I’d take before Bonds circa 1993.

Had Bonds stayed clean, we’d be preparing for his Hall of Fame induction in a not-too-distant summer, instead of wondering if he’ll ever get enough votes from the writers.  Bonds might not have set the home run record, but he likely would have gotten 3,000 hits, instead of stalling out at 2,935 when no one would sign him after 2007 because he was a steroid-addled clubhouse cancer.  Bonds might also have finished with a dozen Gold Gloves, instead of seven, since he stopped winning defensive awards when he started juicing.  Clean, Bonds would have solidified himself as the greatest left fielder ever.  Additionally, he may have been the first player with 600 home runs and 600 stolen bases.  That might have been harder to top than 756 home runs.

In some parallel universe, I like to think Bonds stayed clean.  After all, steroids weren’t his only option for changing himself.  Perhaps the following could have happened:

October 1998: Bonds finishes with 37 home runs, 122 runs batted in and a .303 batting average. It’s one of his best years, though it goes unnoticed as McGwire surpasses Roger Maris with 70 home runs.  Shortly after the season, childhood acquaintance Greg Anderson offers to put Bonds on a steroid regimen.  He unilaterally refuses.  Instead, he tries meditation.

1999: While Bonds in our universe struggles with steroid-related injuries and plays just 102 games, clean Barry plays 157 games, wins his eighth Gold Glove and begins to mend fences with teammates, notably Jeff Kent.  “I’ve been doing some work on myself, and I’m starting to realize I’ve been a selfish asshole most of my life,” Bonds tells Kent.  “What can I do to make things right?”  Kent tells Bonds to kiss his own ass.

2000: People have begun to note the unusual changes in Bonds.  “You don’t meet many players who’ve undergone such a profound spiritual transformation late in their career as Barry Bonds, it just doesn’t happen normally,” Dusty Baker tells Sports Illustrated, after the magazine names Bonds its Sportsman of the Year. “It’s one reason I decided to name my son after him instead of Darren Lewis.  Also, I didn’t want a kid named for a .250 hitter.”

2001: All the spiritual retreats and yoga pay off as calmer, happier Barry hits .340 with 42 home runs, 138 runs batted in and 36 stolen bases, winning his fourth Most Valuable Player award and carrying the Giants to their first World Series title since 1954.  Overjoyed, he appears on Oprah and jumps on her couch, beating Tom Cruise to this by nearly four years.  Interestingly, Bonds has also begun dating Katie Holmes by this time.

2002: Bonds saves little Barry Baker from being run over at home plate during the World Series, which the Giants win again.

2003-2004: Bonds starts to decline, approaching his 40th birthday.  He accepts it as part of aging and has his final full season and All Star appearance in 2004.  He also wins the Roberto Clemente Award, though he’s initially uncertain what this is.  After learning it is for the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team,” Bonds laughs for a full three minutes before conceding that, yes, maybe that kind of accolade is realistic now.

2005-2006: Bonds assumes a bench role with the Giants, sticking around for his 3,000th hit and to serve as elder statesman.  He retires in 2006, and the Giants promptly offer him a coaching job and begin planning a statue of him outside AT&T Park, near the one of Mays.

So, let’s recap.  In my version, Bonds wins the World Series twice, has his own statue and gets to sleep with Katie Holmes.  In real life, he’s under federal indictment and alienated from the baseball world, all alone.  When I stop and think about it, I don’t know which version is crazier.

P.S. Also in my version, Bonds retires with a head of wavy hair and gets to keep the Mr. Belvedere mustache.

A new job and what that means for this site

I signed a two-month Independent Consultant Agreement this morning to work for a start-up in San Carlos, California (for the Pirates fan.)  Thus, four days a week, beginning March 8, I will be writing copy for the Web for this company and assisting in other SEO activities.  The goal is that I become a full-time, salaried employee at the end, if all goes well.  Regardless, I’m thrilled.  In a sense, it makes these last few months worth it, hard as they’ve sometimes been.

I walked away from a well-paying sales job in November because it wasn’t an ideal fit.  End of day, not everyone can cold call, especially in this economy.  I struggled consistently my last few months on the job before quitting at the suggestion of my boss.  I still think I made the right decision, but financially, it’s been tough.  I left with little savings and have been unable to receive unemployment benefits, since I quit voluntarily.  Thus, my folks have had to help me out a lot the last few months, which is humbling at 26.  I learned an important lesson: Never quit a job unless you have another one lined up.

But if it’s been the Dark Ages for my bank account these last few months, it’s been the Renaissance for this site.  After managing just a few posts a month towards the end of my sales job — shit posts at that — I suddenly found myself with time to write every day.  Thus, I went to near-daily updates, and the number of visitors to this site tripled in the process. Google Analytics says I get 945 visitors a month right now; in November, I was getting 300.  Granted, popular baseball blogs exceed in a day what I currently attract per month, but I feel I’m on my way to good things.  I haven’t just been writing more.  I also feel like I have been writing better.

The job search was definitely challenging.  I left my sales position with a stated goal of writing more, but with that said, I wasn’t sure what field I would next work in.  Thus, I considered everything from more sales work to online marketing to pouring coffee (I think I had a 24-hour stretch where I applied at three different Starbucks.)  I have to say this new job seems like a great outcome.  I like start-up culture, the company I’ll be working for seems cool and I’m excited to get to make a living writing.  Writing doesn’t really seem like work to me, and I miss it when it’s not in my life.

The looming question, of course, is what impact my new job will have on this site. When I interviewed for the job, my boss made clear that if he brought me on as a salaried employee, it would be a 50-hour a week commitment.  I figured it might effect the number of posts I write per week, as I’m currently doing about six.  If I do go full-time, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number drops to three, though I will look to maintain the same caliber of writing.  Were I to choose, I’d sooner sacrifice quantity than quality here.  My rationale might be different if I had a different kind of site.

Anyhow, I want to thank everyone who had a hand in getting me this job.  That includes the administrators who oversee me here.  Were it not for this site, I doubt I would have been hired.  I’m telling every journalism student I talk to from now on to start a blog, if they don’t have one already.

Vlad Guerrero: The second coming of Juan Gonzalez (and I mean that in a good way)

I just saw a story on ESPN about Vlad Guerrero looking good in workouts with Texas Rangers.  I remain in the camp of people who think his signing will likely be a success.  The idea of him in a Ranger lineup for an entire year intrigues me, and, in fact, I think it will be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

When I think of the Rangers, I see a free-swinging club, the American League equivalent of the Colorado Rockies.  The Rangers actually slumped in 2009 to a .260 team batting average, however, between Milton Bradley’s departure and the struggles of Josh Hamilton, who had a widely-publicized slip in sobriety prior to the season and battled injuries during it.  One year prior, with Bradley and Hamilton both thriving in the Texas lineup, the team hit .283.

Enter the second coming of Juan Gonzalez.

The thought first flashed in my mind as I glanced at the ESPN story, and I confirmed it by looking at Gonzalez’s Baseball Reference page: For overall career, Guerrero is listed as the second-most similar batter to Gonzalez, after Albert Belle.  In their primes, Guerrero and Gonzalez were each Triple Crown possibilities (as was Belle), good for upwards of 30 home runs, 120 runs batted in and a batting average in the neighborhood of .320.  They were both batters who could anchor a lineup.

If Guerrero stays healthy — and that is still an if, admittedly, after two knee surgeries prior to the 2009 season — I see him hitting somewhere near or above his career batting average of .321.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits .330 with 25 home runs and 90 runs batted in. And short of heading to Colorado or Boston, I think Guerrero gets the maximum possibility for success here.  That Ranger lineup is kind of like The Horse Whisperer for troubled hitters (with the exception of Andruw Jones, who needed to be put down.)

Of course, I’ve been wrong on these things before, but I feel more confident saying this than when I predicted the 49ers would win their division in 2004.  They went 2-14 that year, I got made fun of.

By the way, I’m going to step aside from drawing any steroid parallels here.  Granted, if my Twitter friend Jose Canseco is to be believed — and at this point, all signs point to yes, he should be believed — Gonzalez may have been chemically enhanced from the waning days of Bush I (and whatever happened to Gonzalez, by the way?  Did he go in the Witness Protection program?  We never hear from that guy anymore.)  For our purposes, though, until it comes out that Guerrero flunked a test, I am strictly looking at a numerical comparison between the two players.  And for our purposes, those numbers look good.

Some coming attractions

My strategy with this site is to generally try and stay a post or two ahead.  It’s a byproduct of my days as a journalist; a competent writer is always thinking of the next story, particularly if they write freelance, and a good story will sometimes spin out two or three others.  To that end, I’ve got a few logs in the blog fire, so to speak.  Here are a few things I’m interested in writing about:

  • When I first contacted David McCarthy, the executive director of the Ted Williams Museum in Florida, we discussed the possibility of having a conversation at some point since McCarthy had known Williams for nearly 20 years.  I emailed McCarthy yesterday about having the conversation this week and think it would make a dynamite post for this site.
  • A friend of a friend is playing independent league ball in the Midwest.  He’s 26 and had been an outfielder in the A’s organization up to last year.  I’m interested in writing about how we know in life if and when it’s time to move on from something we love and what keeps us from leaving.
  • At some point, three new book reviews should be forthcoming.  I have been reading Chief Bender’s Burden, which is good but taking longer than expected to finish.  After that, I have two other books from its publisher to read: Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball and 1921: The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York. As I’ve mentioned before, I will review any baseball book that’s sent to me, though if it winds up sucking, I will likely make note of that here, too.

Also, there’s one other thing I can mention now.  A month or so ago, one of the administrators of this site approached me about being part of a group blog on the San Francisco Giants.  I subsequently recruited three friends to be part of the effort, and on Monday evening, I got an email from another of the administrators saying the new site had launched.  I am going to hold off on posting the URL here until we get some content live, but that will hopefully be within a week.  Stay tuned.

I plan to contribute one post a week to the new blog, give or take.  For me, it will be a side project to this site.  To fellow twenty-somethings who like alternative rock, I would say that metaphorically the site you’re on now is like Death Cab for Cutie while the new one will be my Postal Service.  To the older set: If this site is like The Beatles for me, perhaps the new one could be my own personal Wings.  Maybe I’m amazed at the chance to have two baseball blogs instead of one.

Belated post-mortem on my chance to interview Will Clark

I have been remiss in posting the outcome of my opportunity to interview Will Clark at an awards dinner in Florida a couple of weeks ago.  As some may have surmised, I did not attend the event or interview Clark, even by phone.  I have not written about this until today partly due to my disappointment with how things played out, though the experience itself bears mention.

I’ll rewind for anyone who hasn’t heard the earlier iterations of this story.  Back in November, I learned of a Hitters Hall of Fame at the Ted Williams Museum in Tampa, Florida.  I also learned that this Hall of Fame honored players like Dale Murphy and Fred McGriff, but not Honus Wagner or Jackie Robinson.  Curious, I called a listed number for the museum and reached the cell phone of the executive director, David McCarthy.  After I subsequently sent McCarthy a link to my post, he emailed feedback and invited me to the annual awards dinner for the museum, set for February 13.  At the time in November, I had just quit a sales job and had lots of free time but little income.  I told McCarthy I would have to get back to him and figured, since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I wouldn’t be able to afford the trip to Tampa.

The decision to pass became tougher, though, when I learned in January that my all-time favorite baseball player Will Clark would be honored at the dinner, along with Darryl Strawberry, Bert Blyleven and Dave Dravecky.  As one of the stipulations for being honored is that a player attend the dinner, I figured I could interview all four men if I went.  I contemplated asking my parents for the money, but a man I go to for advice stressed the importance of being self-supporting, and I couldn’t argue.  I let McCarthy know in January of my financial uncertainty, and he said I could still come to the dinner, even with last-minute notice.

In the end, it wasn’t meant to be.  The $350 I needed to make the trip remained an elusive pile of money that never materialized, simple as it sometimes seemed it should be.  If I’d had a job last month or even a few weeks ago, I may have been able to justify going, but in this economy, work has been hard to come by.  Granted, I’ve had some income from freelance writing the last month, but it didn’t seem right to commit funds to a trip when I couldn’t guarantee my next rent.

In the eleventh hour, I tried some last-ditch maneuvering to interview Clark by phone but that didn’t come off either.  I spoke with the sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle two days before the event and pitched a freelance idea about it.  He passed.  The following day, I inquired with McCarthy about doing a phone interview with Clark.  McCarthy said Clark’s travel arrangements had been delayed by the bad weather in the South and that a phone interview looked uncertain but that he probably could have set something up in-person.  At that point, I gave up.

There’s been a Catch-22 in all this.  Had I not quit my job, I would have been able to afford making the trip, no question; but I probably wouldn’t have had time in the first place to interview McCarthy and build a relationship.  The silver lining in all this, I suppose, is that McCarthy has essentially given me a standing invitation to the event.  Mark McGwire may be on the bill next year.   I hope I can make it.

Baseball coma

I spent much of yesterday transcribing my interview from Saturday with the 96-year-old former big league teammate of Joe Marty, who I’m interested in writing a book on.  While transcribing yesterday, between being held in some kind of spell — a baseball coma, if you will — I got further affirmation of what had already struck me on Saturday: I got some gold.  The old ballplayer’s memory was wonderfully clear, and he was a better quote than some of the managers I talked to in my time covering baseball.  I probably transcribed for 4-5 hours yesterday and got a couple thousand words of quotes between the man and his son, lots of great anecdotes I didn’t even ask for really.  I think there’s definitely a book here.

Two days on, I’m still amazed to have talked to someone who played in the majors with Marty, who was there from 1937 to 1941.  Like I’ve said before, this man is one of three teammates still living, all in their nineties.  I definitely want to turn my attention now to getting the other two men on record, though I know not to expect anything.  The approach of calling a family member, sending a list of written questions and then waiting for a callback seemed to work well, though.  Generally, I’m not the kind of journalist to provide questions prior to an interview, but I’m happy to make an exception here.

A larger task will be tracking down the men Marty played with on the Sacramento Solons in the Pacific Coast League, between 1946 and 1952.  Some are still in the Sacramento area and meet for old-timer lunches on a monthly basis.  I’ve interviewed a few of these men in years past, for different projects, and my guess is that, all told, there could be a few dozen ex-Solons from these years still living.  It’s harder to verify than with ex-big leaguers, particularly since Sacramento was something of a way-station then; that being said, I may call on the Sacramento chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research and even contact archives associated with the PCL.

I have no idea of the road I’m embarking on, which will probably be a weekend project for the foreseeable future.  All the same, I feel a sense of purpose, that I’m getting a chance to work on something that’s bigger than me.  That feels good.

It's like Christmas around here today

It’s been an amazing last couple of hours in my life.

I had a visitor scheduled for noon today.  At 11:57, though, I got a call from the son of the 96-year-old former baseball player I have been wanting to interview for a book on one of his teammates on the 1940 Phillies, Joe Marty.  Marty grew up in my hometown of Sacramento and was once thought to be a better prospect than another outfielder of his era, Joe DiMaggio, though that never materialized.  It seems like it would make a good book, and it would be my first book, if I do write it.

I wasn’t sure if and when my visitor would show, but I elected to do the interview anyhow.  I hung up, with my caller’s permission, so I could grab my digital recorder, put fresh batteries in it and call back to reverse the charges (one of the few benefits of having a Metro phone is that I have unlimited minutes, local and long-distance.)  I didn’t know how much time we would have, but we agreed that I could call back later if we got interrupted.  The journalist in me is always willing to drop whatever I’m doing for a good story.

As it turned out, my visitor has thus far no-showed me, and I was able to stay on the phone with the ballplayer and his son for an hour and a half, all told.  The ballplayer didn’t know Marty well, but he was able to offer some insight about him; I’m just thrilled to get to talk to any of Marty’s former teammates, as this man is one of three still living, all in their nineties.  I’m starting to have some faith that this is going to be a good book and that I’m the guy to write it.

For search engine purposes, I am declining to post the name of the player or more details of the interview right now, though I may post a full transcript of the interview here, if and when my book comes out.

That’s not all.  I called my mom just after the interview ended so I could relay the news.  While we were on the phone, I got a knock on the door.  I figured it would be my visitor.  However, it was the mailman with another book for me from University of Nebraska Press.  This time they sent me a new book by a pair of authors, Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg entitled, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York. I will happily review this once I finish reading two other books I have from the publisher.

Days like this come along seldom.  I’m 26, but right now I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Classic book review: Summer of '49

Since reviewing The Boys of Summer here in November, I have been meaning to write about more classic baseball books that I have read.  There are a few classics.  Ball Four comes to mind, as does The Glory of Their Times, Ken Burns Baseball and a recent addition, Game of Shadows.  But if The Boys of Summer is the best baseball book ever — and it’s probably either that or The Glory of Their Times — the next runner-up might be Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam.

I read it and Ball Four around the same time during my senior year of college.  I wasn’t required to read either book, though for me, it wasn’t strictly pleasure reading; this was during a period when I figured I was going to be a sportswriter after graduating, and I wanted to read as many great pieces of sports writing as I could.  I’m glad I read both books.

I found Summer of ’49 compelling for a number of reasons.  Halberstam, a Harvard graduate who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting the Vietnam War for The New York Times, deftly recreated the 1949 pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and eventual World Series champion New York Yankees.  A skilled reporter who began writing sports books in his forties, Halberstam interviewed nearly every living member of those Red Sox and Yankee teams, with the exception of Joe DiMaggio, who resisted participating.  Halberstam more than made due with the others, though.  The book ends with a beautiful, vivid recollection from Ted Williams that I won’t spoil here.

But the book is far from just a rehash of box scores with some quotes from a few players.  I could have written that– any half-competent hack could have, really.  Halberstam made his work distinct with anecdotes at once crisply written, original and funny.  Nearly five years on from finishing the book, I didn’t have to look long to find one such example, that comes from page 143.  Halberstam wrote:

Lefty Grove, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the sport, had also come to Boston near the end of his career.  Grove kept a bottle of whiskey in his locker.  He was given to tantrums, though as Ted Williams noted, his tantrums were always beautifully controlled.  If he smashed his locker after a tough loss, he always did it with his right hand.

I remember thinking as I read the book that it didn’t seem perfect.  Structure-wise, it’s really just a chronology of the ’49 season with a lot of interviews interspersed, which is how many baseball books are written, not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that. I would just submit that the greatest art is sometimes innovative, like Citizen Kane, a film decades ahead of its time when it debuted in 1941.  But the fact Summer of ’49 even has me thinking in these terms says something.  I’ll probably read the book again at some point, even if simply in preparation to write a historical baseball book of my own and see how it’s best done.

I was disheartened when Halberstam died in a car accident in 2007 at 73, though I admire how he went: His obituary in The Times noted he was en route to interview former NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book when the car he was riding in got broadsided.  Great sportswriters always seem to be working right up until the time of their death, from Jim Murray to Shirley Povich to Red Smith.  While I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious to include myself in this equation, I hope I’m still writing decades from now.

Chicken on the Hill with Will

I had an interview on Wednesday for an Internet marketing job in San Carlos, California, which meant another chance to talk baseball.

My interviewer was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, who looked to be about 40, give or take.  He thought I might not be familiar with the teams of his era.  No bother: I named Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen and Danny Murtaugh.  I briefly described Steve Blass Disease, which I wrote about here in August, an affliction named for a Pirates starter of the early 1970s who, for no clear reason, lost his ability to pitch.  My interviewer and I of course discussed how Pittsburgh has struggled since 1992.  And I mentioned “Chicken on the Hill with Will.”

Allow me to explain that last thing.

When I was growing up, one of my friends, Alec, had family from the Pittsburgh area.  Alec’s mom told me that Pirates great and future Hall of Famer Stargell had a restaurant and whenever he would homer, everyone in the restaurant got free chicken.  I never knew for sure if this was legit, though I just did a Google search and saw a reference to it on Stargell’s Wikipedia page.  Talk about happier times in Pittsburgh– a restaurant could stockpile a warehouse with unused chicken if it tried a promotion for the current Pirates.

Anyhow, I discussed Stargell and more with my interviewer.  For all that we talked baseball, though, he seemed most impressed with the fact that I could name all four members of The Beatles.  I have a follow-up interview set for Monday afternoon.

(Postscript: He hired me)

Willy Taveras: What was that all about?

I wanted to offer more belated thoughts on a recent baseball transaction.  The following took place over the last three months:

December 3: The A’s acquire Aaron Miles in a trade with the Colorado Rockies for Jeff Gray and two other players.  Seems alright at the time– Miles only hit .185 in limited action last year, but carries a .282 lifetime average and can play three different infield positions.  And he’s a local guy, who grew up in nearby Antioch, offering nice stories for the A’s.

February 1: Miles is traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Willy Taveras and some guy named Adam Rosales.  Makes less sense than the first trade– Taveras is an outfielder and offers little besides speed on the bases, something the A’s have never placed much emphasis on.  And they already have Rajai Davis, who hit .305 with 41 stolen bases in 2009, while Taveras managed .240 and 25 steals  Still, A’s general manager Billy Beane’s track record is good enough for one to suspend disbelief.

February 1, one hour later: Suspension lifted, so to speak; the A’s designate Taveras for assignment.

February 9: The A’s release Taveras, after he declines a Triple-A assignment.  I guess he didn’t want to see Sacramento, my hometown.

February 15: Taveras signs with the Washington Nationals.  The A’s agree to pay all but $400,000 of his $4 million salary.

Huh?

I have long championed Beane and the A’s in general, down to their marketing department, which I always thought was genius.  Still, it doesn’t sound like there’s any positive way to spin this story.  Let’s look at some possible reasons Taveras was traded for/released:

  • Result of a drinking game by A’s management
  • Taveras’s player bio was faxed over just after the trade, whereupon Beane recognized him from a recent episode of America’s Most Wanted
  • Reds GM Walt Jocketty continued his Svengali-like spell over the A’s in unloading Taveras for Miles. Jocketty is the same man who, as GM of the Cardinals stole Mark McGwire from Oakland and signed Jason Isringhausen, back when that meant something.  The A’s should have Jocketty’s picture up next to the cash register, whatever it takes for them not to do anymore business with him.
  • Miles made some threatening remarks about Beane’s family and had to go.
  • This was really a complicated, brilliant set of maneuvers by Beane to obtain Adam Rosales, in which case, well played sir.