Barry Bonds Trial: Joe DiMaggio and Josef Stalin Meet in a Steroids Show Trial

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Barry Bonds Trial: Joe DiMaggio and Josef Stalin Meet in a Steroids Show Trial
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
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.

Josef Stalin writing the script for a perjury trial

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.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Bonds is good tinder for a Public Burning, Guilty *or* innocent

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 official, now accepted story line comes from the prosecutors through their own TASS, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who wrote the leak-drenched book Game of Shadows.

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

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 4/2011.

 

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.


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