What he did: If ever a baseball superstar played in precisely the wrong era for his skill set and temperament, it was Barry Bonds. Sure, one could glance at his power numbers after he probably started taking performance enhancing drugs and think they helped him. He might not have broken the single-season and career home run records unaided. But as Bonds approaches his fourth year under federal indictment, it seems like no ballplayer has lost more because of steroids, needlessly.
Bonds was one of the best in baseball clean, a rare player who could hit for average and power, run fast, and field well. According to Game of Shadows, Bonds started using after watching Mark McGwire’s record-breaking 1998 season. Steroids inflated Bonds’ average and power, but they also added bulk, limiting his speed and defensive range. They also set him up for legal problems.
Imagine if Bonds played in an era where he never would’ve been presented with the decision to use, where there would have been no artificially bulked-up sluggers to envy, where weightlifting hadn’t even entered the game. Imagine if Bonds played before steroids.
Era he might have thrived in: Legions of Giants fans supported Bonds at his peak. I know another time this might have occurred: In the early 1920s, with the New York Giants (assuming we suspend disbelief about Bonds’ skin color keeping him from playing.)
Why: With his talents, Bonds could have shined in many eras. In the 1960s, he’d have rivaled his godfather Willie Mays. In the Deadball Era, he might have hit close to .400 or racked up gaudy stolen base totals. But I like the idea of him on the Giants of the early ’20s for a few reasons.
First, as the film Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story noted, those Giants wanted an ethnic slugger to rival the Yankees and Babe Ruth. In 1923, they signed a Jewish right fielder named Mose Solomon, who appeared in two games, got into a salary dispute, and never played again. Like Solomon, Bonds would have appealed to a large potential fan base. The Polo Grounds was near Harlem, and by the ’20s, the neighborhood was largely black. Bonds could have been one of its heroes.
Granted, I don’t know how Bonds would have interacted with his manager in New York, John McGraw, given that Bonds and Jim Leyland had some epic shouting matches in Pittsburgh. I’m also not sure how Bonds would coexist with the New York media. But there are other reasons this could work.
Like Solomon, Bonds hit left-handed and could have exploited the right field short porch at the Polo Grounds, which ran 258 feet to the foul pole. The vast expanses over the middle of the outfield could have provided Bonds with massive numbers of triples and a few inside-the-park home runs. And for a player who sometimes worked with little lineup protection, Bonds would have been on a 1923 Giants club that hit .295 and lost to the Yankees in the World Series.
A regular reader sent me converted stats from Baseball-Reference for Bonds playing every season of his career on a team like the 1923 Giants. While I discount the converted later seasons, since I believe those are a reflection of steroid-aided numbers, I think Bonds’ totals from his early seasons are telling. The stat converter has the Bonds of 1992 and 1993 posting back-to-back years with at least a .350 batting average, 40 home runs, and 120 RBI for New York.
I’m guessing Bonds would be good for 30-40 home runs annually with roughly the same career longevity, 20 or so seasons. That comes out to about 700 home runs. Legitimate ones.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that debuted June 3 and looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.