By Barry Bonds’ lofty standards, it wasn’t especially remarkable—an opposite-field fly ball that carried about 395 feet at hitter-friendly Coors Field in Denver. But when home run No. 762 drifted over the fence in left center field on September 5, 2007, it closed the books on the most prodigious power hitter of all time.
The debate over Bonds’ legacy, on the other hand, was merely warming up.
In its most recent vote, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which is the Hall’s gatekeeper, granted Bonds 53.8 percent of the vote.Although that’s short of the 75 percent needed for admission to baseball’s Valhalla, he’s clearly on his way. “He’s unquestionably one of the greatest players in baseball history,” says Dan Okrent, the celebrated author, baseball historian, and fantasy league creator.
Bonds’ career stats reveal a nearly incomparable player. In 22 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, Bonds hit for average—his .298 matches that of Yankee great Mickey Mantle—and he could clearly hit for power.
But Bonds also possessed great vision, giving him one of the most discerning eyes in baseball (hello,Ted Williams), forcing pitchers to throw strikes at him. Or not. He led the league in walks and intentional walks 12 times, his power terrifying opponents into 232 bases on balls in 2004—120 of them IBBs.
That strike-zone discipline—the refusal to chase bad pitches—helped Bonds to a ridiculous on-base percentage (OBP) of .609 in 2004. His lifetime .444 OBP is the sixth best ever, just behind Lou Gehrig. And in a stat that baseball wonks worship, wins above replacement (WAR)—a measure of a player’s value to his team—Bonds is second only to Babe Ruth. Let’s not forget defense, either: The guy was an eight-time Gold Glove recipient with few peers in left field.
There were two Barry Bondses—and both of them have HOF cred. The “skinny Barry,” who played for the Pirates from 1986 to 1992 and for the Giants from 1993 to 1999, won three Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, averaged 34 home runs per season, and was among the league leaders in slugging average. By the time he entered his “bulked-up Barry” phase, Bonds was 36 years old. Had he retired, he’d have been a shoo-in.
But in 2003, as Bonds was on his way to the third of four consecutive MVP awards, a Dumpster-diving Internal Revenue Service investigator named Jeff Novitzky made a case that would rattle the sports world. Novitzky’s target was a San Francisco–area nutrition supplement company named BALCO, run by a onetime rock musician named Victor Conte.
The investigation would lead to charges that Conte was supplying steroids, testosterone, human growth hormone, and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to Olympic and professional athletes across the globe—including the most famous athlete in San Francisco, Bonds.
Why Novitzky started this particular investigation has never been clearly established. Another bureaucrat trying to take down a great. Call it envy. Based on Novitzky’s work, however, the federal government would win BALCO-related cases against Conte and some of his clients, including Olympic heroes such as Marion Jones—jailed for lying before a grand jury—and against Bonds’ personal trainer and friend, Greg Anderson.
The federal prosecutors did not pitch a shutout. The U.S. attorney spent 12 years and millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing Bonds like he was Clyde Barrow. Following a sensational trial in 2011 in which witnesses testified to his use of PEDs, Bonds was convicted on a single count of obstruction of justice; his sentence included a month of home confinement, two years’ probation with 250 hours of community service, and a $4,000 fine.
His conviction was eventually knocked so far out of the park by an appeals court that the U.S. attorney folded. Bonds isn’t guilty of anything. And he’s never officially failed a drug test.
As the oldest son of Bobby Bonds, a free-swinging outfielder for the Giants, Yankees, and other teams, Bonds was born for baseball. From an early age, Barry was beyond gifted and beyond coaching. As described in the Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams book Game of Shadows, he developed an attitude before he could shave. At Arizona State, where heplayed for three years, his teammates even voted to kick him off the team, despite his obvious talent
As a Giant, Bonds was unloved by the media and resented by some teammates. He didn’t really give a damn. Why should he? Bonds is the greatest ball player of all time. For his part, Bonds simply put the numbers up.
“Every player who’s ever played against me knows my ability, and that’s something I will never, ever have to explain,” he said after his exoneration. “I’m not insulted by anything. I don’t hold grudges. I’m not going to hold a grudge. I know what I brought to the game. I’m proud of that. That’s all. I’m proud of that.” (Bonds was hired by the Giants organization as an advisor for the 2017 season.)
Perhaps the best Bonds comparison—in terms of both cantankerous personality and skill—is the great Bambino himself, Babe Ruth. Baseball’s history connects the Babe with Bonds. Ruth’s uppercut home run swing changed baseball. He popularized the long-ball game that would become the focus of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run chase in 1998.
Bonds made a market-based decision to go long: If baseball was rewarding pure power with money and fame, Bonds was an investor. He returned for the 2000 season with added weight and muscle and began crashing home runs with increasing regularity, hitting 49 dingers that season, 15 more than in the prior year and the most he’d ever hit.
That is, until 2001, when he broke the record for most home runs in a season, 73, eclipsing the mark of 70 set by the hulking McGwire in 1998.
PEDs can’t make you a ballplayer. Whether on PEDs or not, Bonds put in a ton of work to be great. He was naturally gifted, a fitness fanatic, and a baseball professional who practiced all the drills needed to become a virtuoso. To baseball’s cognoscenti, the unpopular Bonds is being held to a different standard than other heroes, in baseball or any other sport.
And Bonds was truly great at his primary occupation, a genuine Hall of Famer. We think it’s sheer idiocy not to vote Barry Bonds into the Hall of Fame.