Bonds' Bat Boomed Before Balco Allegations
The expensive perjurytrial of Barry Bonds grinds on through the spring. This process is not about baseball, a fact-based enterprise, whose facts are fading out behind the smoke that always billows out of Public Burnings.
Don't remember the Baseball Truth? We'll get to it soon enough, after we peel away the politics—for now just remember the number 13, it's all about the 13.
Joe Stalin, meet Joe McCarthy (not the genius manager)
Make no mistake—the Bonds trial is not the justice system trying to keep perps off the street in an effort to make us all safer (for half the money they've spent on this, the Feds could have prosecuted and convicted executives at the handful of mortgage servicing corporations that have unlawfully had evicted thousands of families from their homes), it's an effort to "make a point" to the culture at large.
Like Joltin' Joe Stalin's 1930's spectacles, a show trial like this is intended to make an example of a well-known figure, an example that serves as a warning to all to conform, with confessions, be they true or not, that deliver redemption to the wrong-doer and mass audience alike. Just like Stalin's show trials, the accused are ostracized until they confess (the stick), but allowed to be rehabilitated once they confess (the carrot).
As I wrote about in my book, Management by Baseball, this happens in large business organizations often. Somewhere the system fails, and someone is made to be at fault for it. Frequently, one or a handful of people really are at fault, but they are rarely the ones used as lightning rods; the blame is pushed down the chain to those without the political capital to defend themselves.
The narrative gets cast by the Korporate Kremlin into a cautionary tale, the truth usually hidden to make it a simpler, more emotional/fearful story.
So Cultural Stalinism (making sure the facts of history get hidden behind an opaque storyline built on emotion and fear) meets the Chemical McCarthyism of the Mitchell Report.
Chemical McCarthyism makes both good science or justice unlikely—it dumps every possible connection between every supplement into a non-differentiated stew, treating asthma medication, diet pills, cocaine, rehabilitative supplements and weird cancer-encouraging organic chemistry experiments as the same.
It treats confessed wrong-doers, suspected wrong do-ers and people known to spend time with suspected wrong-doers the same. (If you believe the Mitchell Report was fact-based or authoritative, read it—I've linked to it).
For example, one of the now-generally-believed-to-be-a-juicer (NGBTBAJ) players was named thusly: A player who admitted to taking targeted supplements alleged that he saw the NGBTBAJ having lunch with a man, the man being someone the accuser's own dealer claimed was a dealer. For a long time, the lunch-eating ballplayer was believed to be a juicer because he had been "named" in the Mitchell Report, and lunch, along with the cite that he had come back more quickly than normal from an injury, was the extent of his inclusion.
Barry Bonds is shunned, until he confesses. The accepted (and entirely faith-based and bogus) narrative until then is that his accomplishments merit an asterisk, that he was a merely a player whose significant achievements were fueled only through drugs, and that without them, he was just some Marvin Benard.
Just how untrue is that narrative? For this analysis, I'll take no stance on his guilt or innocence. Both here are immaterial—the Truth is in the Baseball.
The bat-tastic 13
Thought experiment, dudes and dudesses: Pretend Bonds' career ended just before the first alleged transgression, after completing his 13th year in the majors.
The story line is that he went to the dark side because he was miffed about Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's recognition during their record-shattering 1998 home-run mano-a-mano, a competition that excluded him, he believed, because they took supplements and he didn't. Driven by his competitive compulsion, he then started transgressing.
So let's accept the persecutors' own narrative for a second, that Bonds was chemically enhanced as early as the beginning of the 1999 season. Let's pretend for the thought experiment that he pulled a Greta Garbo and retired chemical-free at his peak, after his 13th year of play.
In this Bizarro Super-Bonds alternate universe, what is his legacy?
The facts are that before he ever allegedly infused himself with Balco-licious brews, Barry Bonds was perhaps the most accomplished everyday player in the 20th century. He wasn't just Superman, he was the entire frelling Justice League of America (except for maybe Wonder Woman, though maybe he had that covered, too). His batting line before even the prosecutors allege he was using supplements:
Year Age Tm Lg G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB IBB 1986 21 PIT NL 113 484 92 26 3 16 48 36 7 65 102 .223 .330 .416 .746 103 172 2 1987 22 PIT NL 150 611 144 34 9 25 59 32 10 54 88 .261 .329 .492 .821 114 271 3 1988 23 PIT NL 144 614 152 30 5 24 58 17 11 72 82 .283 .368 .491 .859 148 264 14 1989 24 PIT NL 159 679 144 34 6 19 58 32 10 93 93 .248 .351 .426 .777 126 247 22 1990 25 PIT NL 151 621 156 32 3 33 114 52 13 93 83 .301 .406 .565 .970 170 293 15 1991 26 PIT NL 153 634 149 28 5 25 116 43 13 107 73 .292 .410 .514 .924 160 262 25 1992 27 PIT NL 140 612 147 36 5 34 103 39 8 127 69 .311 .456 .624 1.080 205 295 32 1993 28 SFG NL 159 674 181 38 4 46 123 29 12 126 79 .336 .458 .677 1.136 204 365 43 1994 29 SFG NL 112 474 122 18 1 37 81 29 9 74 43 .312 .426 .647 1.073 183 253 18 1995 30 SFG NL 144 635 149 30 7 33 104 31 10 120 83 .294 .431 .577 1.009 168 292 22 1996 31 SFG NL 158 675 159 27 3 42 129 40 7 151 76 .308 .461 .615 1.076 188 318 30 1997 32 SFG NL 159 690 155 26 5 40 101 37 8 145 87 .291 .446 .585 1.031 170 311 34 1998 33 SFG NL 156 697 167 44 7 37 122 28 12 130 92 .303 .438 .609 1.047 178 336 29 "CAREER" 1898 1917 63 1216 130 1050 .411 .966 3679 8100 403 411 445 1357 .290 .556 164 289
13 fact-based awesome strengths of Bonds' 13-year career
1. All-Around honors: Three MVP awards. Eight All-Star selections, seven consecutive as a starter.
2. Base-stealing: Second during that time in stolen bases, and at an estimable 77.4 percent success rate. Top 10 in N.L. steals nine times.
3. Base-stealing, sabermetric: Seventh in N.L. during 1986-98 in Sean Smith's Runs from Baserunning (aka WAR Baserunning), beating out basepath legends including Craig Biggio, Tony Gwynn and Brett Butler.
4. Fielding, traditional: Eight Gold Gloves. Top 4 in N.L. fielding percentage as a left fielder seven seasons.
5. Fielding, sabermetric: 1986-98 leader at any position in defensive runs above replacement with 189, extraordinary both because as a corner outfielder, he was playing a position that gets fewer chances than most positions, but also because at 189 runs "saved", he was 26 runs better than the runner-up, so it's not even close.
That 189 defensive runs above replacement is sixth all-time for any position (with the caveat that pre-1974 numbers are educated estimations), and that beats leather legends including Willie Mays, Cal Ripken Jr., Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Schmidt.
And that doesn't even include batting. Put on your shades, because this is Las Vegas-hotel display dazzling ...
6. On-base plus slugging (OPS): In times when OPS marks over 1.000 are truly remarkable, with only a handful in any given season, he broke through that ceiling eight consecutive times.
7. On-base plus slugging adjusted (OPS+): Bonds 1986-98 career 164 (64 percent better than average) ranks him 11th all-time, and among players who retired after World War II (the last 66 years) ranks him third as a batter behind only Mickey Mantle and Albert Pujols (a career still in progress, but let's grant Pujols that).
Led N.L. four times, and was first, second or third nine times. That's not a fluke of OPS+, because using a different Sabermetric method ...
8. Runs Created: Led the N.L. six times. During this truncated career, led the majors (lapped the majors is more like it; with 1,630 runs created, he led the second best by 320 runs, the interval between that runner-up and the batter ranked 23rd).
9. Home runs: His 411 homers during the 13 seasons is first in the N.L. for that time, lapping the runner-up by a barrow-load of 81 taters. He led the N.L. once, in 1993, and tied for the major league lead that year.
Those homer totals weren't enhanced by a homer-friendly home park like those competitor sluggers had. During 1986-98, he hit more four-baggers on the road than in home games (208 to 203), and in his N.L.-leading 1993 campaign, he hit 25 on the road, 21 at home.
10. Slugging average: If he retired in 1998, his SLG would have been 12th all-time in the N.L. He led the league three times.
11. On-base percentage: Led the N.L. four times, in the top four finishers eight times. During his 13 years, he was ranked fourth in the N.L., and on the all-time N.L. table he's 12th.
12. Intentional Walks: This is the ultimate peer-respect indicator, the exact opposite of an Internet or on-line poll because the stakes are so real and ballot-stuffing costs way too much.
So I know you remember the post-1998 Bonds who was walked intentionally with the bases loaded or with no one on base. That probably pushed from your mind this little Petit-four of Cosmic Sweetness: His 289 intentional walks from 1986-98 rank him second all-time, four behind Hammering Hank Aaron, who took 10 additional seasons to bypass Bonds. Respect, baby.
13. Most similar: Not one of Bill James' most widely known innovations, analysts use Similarity Score to compare batters to other batters through history, a pattern recognition technique, like clustering in marketing, that both allows one to roughly gauge a talent's position in the big picture and, to a lesser but still interesting degree, the likely trajectory of his career into the future.
While at 27 years old, his most-similar was Bobby Bonds (a very useful player), by the time we have him retiring at age 33, Bobby is not even in the top 10, and his most-similar is Frank Robinson, "only" one of the five most high-quality, prolific everyday players of the 20th century.
Among his top 10 most-similar at the end of 1998, six are retired, and four of them are enshrined in Cooperstown; of the other two, Jeff Bagwell may make it. Pretty great company.
Here's a jeroboam-sized gurgle of irony for you. Five years after we retire Bonds, that is, 2003 (in real life, that's two years after he shatters Mark McGwire's single-season home run mark), the player the Similarity Score system recognizes as most-similar to Barry Bonds? Frank Robinson. If he did absorb all those o-chem experiments, it left him in the same pattern he started out in.
The story line is a crock. Barry Bonds was a transcendent baseball player three years before he decimated McGwire's and Ruth's and Maris' and Aaron's home run marks. Supplements didn't make him legendary; he already was the most accomplished all-around position player of his generation.
He was a Frank Robinson, not a Marvin Benard, and not even the Stalinist show trial can change that truth.
Brothers in 13: Bonds and DiMaggio
Over at my own blog, I will explain a couple of important, related topics: Why perhaps the most-similar player to Bonds is Joe DiMaggio (if DiMaggio also had great baserunning instincts and the ability to have been top-10 in stolen bases. And was a better outfielder. And Bonds got to play in a segregated workplace where he didn't have to face about 10 percent of the most-talented potential opponents because of their skin tones).
And I will explain why this massive amount of righteous angst is finding its way to Barry Bonds as Lightning Rod.
Hint: With people suffering record unemployment and underemployment, losing their homes, their jobs, their healthcare and their peace of mind, losing their faith in the business and government institutions that are both (and bi-partisanly) committed to Mellonism, a path that is guaranteed not to change the troubling status quo for the better, and with a bi-partisan commitment to give the finance finaglers a free pass ... the emotional result we homo sapiens generally gravitate to is someone must pay, even if that someone is not part of the actual problem that affects us.
It's the perfect petri dish for Cultural Stalinism, and Barry Bonds, if not the perfect lightning rod (we both know he's way too much of a red-ass to go on Maury Povich to confess), is good enough for the Public Burning.
The Baseball Truths will be incinerated as collateral damage.
Jeff Angus is a management consultant and former baseball reporter. He is the author of Management By Baseball.