Any player/Any era: Barry Bonds

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.

5 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Barry Bonds”

  1. Around Pittsburgh, Bonds name cannot be mentioned. Despite seven mostly productive years for the Pirates including a Most Valuable Player season, he’s a pariah. What happens with Bonds and the Hall of Fame will be interesting. My guess is that he will not make it and not just because of his involvement with performance enhancing drugs. Outside of San Francisco, Bonds probably has no friends among the writers. And inside San Francisco, only a few. Getting into the Hall of Fame is tough if you have alienated the people you need to gain admission.

    1. I dunno, Ted Williams didn’t have many friends among the writers, and he made it in easily. Jim Rice and Eddie Murray had their clashes with the media as well. I doubt Bonds will be a first ballot pick, but it’s hard to fathom that he won’t get in at some point, at least from the Veterans Committee.

  2. What we should all understand is that whatever he did, or didn’t put into his body, there was no prohibition at the time, nor should there have been. Whatever an athlete, or individual chooses to ingest is his own business and as long as there’s no victim, he’s not committing a crime. Studies have shown that it’s not upper body strength that adds distance, it’s the lower body. No drug has ever been shown to help a player hit a ball or make them mechanically better. If it helps the body to recover faster from injury, that’s a blessing to both the player and his team. Besides, who are all these weasels who never got chosen in the local stand lot game to be judging men who’ve been blessed with a talent that few have and that lasts for but a short season? Who are they to be making moral judgments, character assessments and character assassinations of others?
    My objection to Barry wasn’t his hat size, but the size of the body armor that he strapped on himself each at bat. Not only did that offer the feeling of extra protection to hang in and cover the plate, but it possibly could have served to “lock” his front arm in place and give him better bat control than without it.
    I never liked the man or his game, but he is an was by any measure a first round hall of famer. If he doesn’t get elected, it speaks more to those doing the voting than to anything he did on or off the field.

  3. The variable isn’t their collective hostile attitude toward the media; it’s that Bonds took PEDs which Murray, Williams and Rice (who slipped in on his 15th year) did not. In recent years, writers and fans have shown increasing disgust with players who used. BTW, has Bonds officially retired yet? And if not, how does the Hall treat that. Is it like a person that has been missing for seven years and is then officially declared dead? If someone doesn’t play for X number of years, is he assumed “retired”?

  4. “No drug has ever been shown to help a player hit a ball or make them mechanically better.”

    If that were true than why would Bonds, Palmero, Clemens, McGuire, Canseco, etc, etc risk their careers and even more importantly their health to take steroids and performance enhancing drugs? That just does not make sense. Even for the matter that Bonds, a superior player along the lines of a Mays or Aaron turned into some freak of nature with hitting stats that were as unnaturally inflated as his head-size was.

    The gentleman who invented to drug that Barry Bonds “thought was flaxseed oil” actually stated from his research that his particular PED not only gave greater strength but also speed and a much greater ability to concentrate in an aggressive manner at the plate. This all came out when the Balco incident was made public. This is not the only testimony that stated something to this effect.

    “Studies have shown that it’s not upper body strength that adds distance, it’s the lower body.”

    I don”t know what that is supposed to prove? The studies also show that it is not just the upper body that is given added strength but all over including the legs. There are no PED’s that could ever exclusively focus on the upper body. The fact is that all students of hitting know that a great deal of power most often comes from the hips and the legs as was noted in the batting styles of great hitters like Musial. But do tell that to the likes of Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks who were also known for their powerful wrists.

    But what you further ignore about giving a pass to steroid users, legal or not, is that they became unintentional proponents of the use of PED’s which only serve to have been an example to thousands of young aspiring athletes of all sports who desire to be competitive and also have taken and may still be taking PED’s.

    These drugs are incredibly harmful and are responsible for all sorts of auto-immune, health and psychological problems. I know this for a fact because I have to take steroids in far smaller doses than those who use them for sports in order to survive and I have developed all sorts of terrible health problems from them. For me the choice is life or death. It was not the case for those like Clemens and company who were looked up to by so many young people who followed in their footsteps.

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