Sunday, May 23, 2004

Free Barry!

I’ve watched Barry Bonds play baseball since his rookie year for my hometown team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit his sixth home run on my fortieth birthday. His homeruns in those days were memorable mostly for the speed with which they left the park, though he did hit some titans. He was a line drive hitter, but they were the hardest line drives I’ve ever seen. The last Pittsburgh Pirates game I saw at Three Rivers Stadium was at the end of his last season there. He didn’t homer but he had five or six hits, rockets to right, center and left.

Lots of people in Pittsburgh didn’t like him, including sportswriters, but Pittsburgh always had to have a dark hero to go along with the favorite, especially when both were black. Willie Stargell was the beloved Pops, Dave Parker was his bad boy shadow. Bobby Bonilla was the popular favorite when Bonds was in the same stellar outfield, on that brilliant and tragic late 80s, early 90s team that one year came within an out of going to the World Series, and never could quite get past the Atlanta Braves several years running. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a contending team since.

Since 1993, Barry has been on the San Francisco Giants, which came within a single win of winning the division that year, and couple of outs of winning the World Series two seasons ago. And of course in the past several years, Barry Bonds has emerged as probably the greatest baseball player of all time. He followed his record-setting single season home run year with the batting average title the next year.

I’ve only managed to see one game in San Francisco since he’s been there, late last season. He did something rare for him---he struck out twice. Still, it’s a great ball park with great fans, and everyone holds their breath when Barry comes to the plate. So often he rewards them with the kind of home run that takes your breath away, like a Michael Jordan dunk or a Kobe Bryant drive, or some of those amazing things the women gymnasts do.

This year, despite his father’s death last fall, and the shadow of the Balco drug scandal, and turning forty himself this season, he started out with tremendous hitting. In mid April he tied Willie Mays (his godfather) for third for total home runs with a shot that practically bears his patent: out of the park in right field, and into the Bay. The next day he moved ahead of Mays with a shot to the same spot (both balls, incredibly, retrieved by the same guy, out there amongst the other boats and kayaks positioned just to chase Barry Bond home runs.)

A few days Scott Ostler, San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist, let loose the rhetoric along with the statistics. “Barry Bonds is rewriting the Book of Baseball Wisdom. The hardest thing to do in sports right now is to miss Barry’s round bat with your round pitched ball.”

At that point, Bonds was hitting .500, with 7 homers and 16 RBIs in 34 at bats. “His slugging percentage is 1.265, a figure so high that only dogs can read it." Ostler wrote about a Sunday against the Dodgers, where Barry hit a double, a homer, another homer, and an RBI single. “Bonds’ second homer caused the Dodgers to do some soul-searching at two different meetings on the mound in which there were seven participants. I think the group included a Bonds specialist the Dodgers flew in from Zurich. I’m pretty sure I could hear them singing ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a meeting at the mound broken up by the fire marshal.”

Then Bonds hit at least one home run in eight straight games. This is the major league record, held by several players (I believe the first one was Dale Long, for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s. One of those stats I memorized from a bubble gum card.) But Barry didn’t hit a homer in the ninth game. He wasn’t allowed to. The San Diego Padres intentionally walked him, every time.

That, my friends, was poor sportsmanship to the extreme. It used to be that in baseball and some other sports, it was a matter of honor to let a player going for a record have a fair shot at it. You didn’t tell your pitcher to throw a fastball down the middle, but you didn’t tell him to walk the guy out of a chance.

But it was only the beginning. By early May Bonds had been intentionally walked 29 times, at a pace to break the single season record of 68 before the season was half over. (The record is held by, you guessed it, Barry Bonds.) By mid May, he had been walked 54 times in 35 games. At first he shrugged it off, saying that the important thing was that the team wins the game. That worked while they were winning. When they slumped, he talked about the strain of it, of staying mentally and physically prepared when he never gets the chance to hit. Then he started talking about being traded. Then his back started acting up again, and he was out of the lineup.

Walking Bonds so much is statistically bad baseball by some accounts (if the idea is to win more than you lose by walking him), but by my account it’s bad for baseball. It corrupts the game. It’s also obviously bad for the baseball business. People don’t go to baseball games to watch the greatest living hitter and maybe the greatest of all time not get a pitch to hit. This is a guy who in the best of times gets maybe a couple of hittable pitches in a game, hardly ever more than one during an at-bat. That he hits as well as he does has to be measured against this.

But this titan of hitting in the last years we will ever get to see him hit is being denied the opportunity to do what he does best, and we are denied the opportunity to see him do it, if only on TV. We’re denied the chance to see him break Babe Ruth’s all time record, which he could conceivably do this season, though not with the at-bats he’s being currently allowed. Then there’s Henry Aaron’s record still to go. There’s no reason that Barry Bonds can’t become the all-time home run champ, except for all those walks.

It’s far from the biggest crime against humanity currently in the docket, but it’s a disgrace to the game of baseball nonetheless. And we can use all the grace and inspiration and wonder we can get.

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