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.

The “What If” Dream Team

I’ve been kicking around the idea lately of creating a dream lineup for the players I feel were held back from immortality by one misfortune or another.  These are the players who generally suffered some kind of catastrophic injury, left the game in shame, or died young.  Barring these fates, many if not most of the following men would have been Hall of Fame members.

They are as follows:

P- J.R. Richard: From 1975 to 1979, he averaged roughly 17 wins and 240 strikeouts per season.  Had his career not been cut short in 1980 by a stroke at age 30, he would probably have accumulated 250-300 career wins and earned a Hall of Fame plaque.

C- Ray Fosse: A poster child for the dark side of the All Star game, Fosse was just 23 and a bright young catcher for the Cleveland Indians when Pete Rose barreled into him to score the winning run in the 1970 contest.  Fosse was never the same thereafter.

1B- Nick Esasky: He really only had one good season, hitting 30 home runs for the Boston Red Sox in 1989, which earned him a large free agent contract.  Esasky played just nine games thereafter, however, having to retire in 1990 because of vertigo.  Alfred Hitchcock later made a film about this.  I think.

2B- Ken Hubbs: He was Rookie of the Year and a Gold Glove winner in 1962 at age 20, but died before the start of the 1964 season in a plane crash.

3B-Heinie Zimmerman: One of many players who was barred from baseball due to gambling in the early part of the twentieth century, Zimmerman is largely a forgotten name today.  However, had he not been thrown out of the game in 1919 at 32, the .295 lifetime hitter would have likely rounded out his career with something over 2,000 hits, perhaps enough for a Hall of Fame bid.

SS- Dickie Thon: He was never the same after missing most of the 1984 season after taking a beanball to the face.  The sponsor ad on his Baseball Reference page probably says it best: Just a Mike Torrez fastball away from the Hall of Fame, Dickie was a forgotten Astros great, and an inspiration to us all.

RF- Tony Conigliaro: Pretty much the same story as Thon, except it happened on the Red Sox in 1967.

CF- Lyman Bostock: A sweet hitting outfielder for the California Angels, Bostock got murdered in a drive-by shooting at the end of the 1978 season. Riding in a car with a woman he had met 20 minutes before, Bostock was shot by her jealous, estranged husband.

LF- Joe Jackson: He got banned for being apart of the Black Sox scandal that threw the 1919 World Series and aside from Pete Rose, is perhaps the best player not in the Hall of Fame. Funny how baseball works sometimes.  Babe Ruth was a preferred name at whorehouses across the country, Ty Cobb admitted late in life to killing a man in the street in 1912, and Barry Bonds will probably get into the Hall of Fame before federal prison, if he ever even gets convicted, but Jackson, a lifetime .356 hitter, has little to no shot at Cooperstown.

Let’s play What Ifs

I just finished re-watching the 1999 documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, about the Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame first baseman, when the thought occurred to look up Greenberg’s career statistics.  Greenberg is an interesting case.  Juxtaposed against our current era, where everyone except Omar Vizquel seems to rack up 500 career home runs, Greenberg made it to Cooperstown with 331 home runs, playing just 10 full seasons.

A book I have on the Hall of Fame suggests Greenberg would have added 100 home runs to his career mark if not for losing four seasons to World War II.  In fact, looking at his career averages, it is not unreasonable to assume Greenberg could have reached 500 home runs, were his career not interrupted near its prime.  This has got me thinking.

The record books today cannot be taken at absolute value.  An entire generation of players from the Thirties to the Fifties lost multiple seasons to either WWII or the Korean War.  Ted Williams served in both conflicts, losing a staggering five years of his career.  He still managed 521 career home runs.

What if players had been exempt from military service?  Here’s a rundown of things that probably would have happened:

  • Williams would have closed out his career with close to 700 home runs and well over 3,000 hits.
  • Willie Mays, who lost nearly two seasons serving during Korea, might have been the first to break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs.  Mays closed out his career in 1973 with 660 home runs.  With the lost time accounted for, it would have been more like 720 homers.
  • Bob Feller would have won 300 games.
  • Warren Spahn probably would have won 400.
  • Joe DiMaggio would have reached the end of the 1951 season with around 2,800 hits as opposed to 2,214.  Perhaps this would have been motivation enough for him to keep playing for another couple years to reach 3,000 hits as opposed to retiring at 36.
  • For that matter, Joe’s brother Dom would most likely have added enough seasons to his career to merit a Hall of Fame induction.
  • World War I generally receives less attention than other major conflicts that baseball served in.  However, it’s worth noting that a number of future Hall of Fame inductees enlisted, and unlike later wars, many players saw combat.  Ty Cobb and Grover Cleveland Alexander fought, as well as the retired Christy Matthewson.  Alexander came back from the war shell-shocked and badly epileptic, nevertheless finishing his career with 373 wins.  Without the war, he likely would have been another 400 game winner.  Meanwhile, Matthewson had his lungs seared by poison gas and died just seven years later.  Cobb got off comparably light, merely missing out on getting 4,500 career hits and keeping Pete Rose from the hits record

More interesting, perhaps, would be to consider all of the players who would have gone from having All Star careers to Hall of Fame ones, with the lost time made up, but that again is material for another time.