It’s time to forgive Barry Bonds.
I understand that doing so feels like baseball heresy to some. It’s loaded statement. In a game so steeped in tradition, it’s considered blasphemy to say anything even remotely positive about the man who “disrespected” that very tradition. After all, we’re talking about the guy who shamelessly chased records in the midst of a public that was entirely aware of the shortcuts he chose to take. Bonds, even more so than a Jose Conseco or a Roger Clemens, came to be the physical embodiment of the steroid era in baseball.
And that’s not fair; to Bonds, to baseball, or to the fans.
If you’re one of those old-school “play the game the right way” types who sees the term professional athlete as being synonymous with role model and want to write off nearly FIFTEEN years of baseball history, that’s fine. Just be consistent. If we’re considering the steroid era, roughly mid-90’s to the late 2000’s, as a gigantic asterisk for the game, then that asterisk needs to be placed next to every historical tidbit from the period, not just the HR numbers of guys like Bonds. Pitchers, perhaps even more commonly than batters, were juicing as well. And what about the guys infamous for not using PED’s during that time?
For example, from ’99-’03 (the heart of the steroid era), 170-lb Pedro Martinez, an infamous non-user, put together what may very well be the most dominant five-year stretch ever for a starting pitcher. Does the average fan give Pedro a historical boost because of that? No, they don’t. Maybe they should. But they don’t.
There’s also this gross misconception that any halfway-decent ballplayer can stick a syringe in his ass a few times and all-of-a-sudden become an elite power hitter. Hitting home runs isn’t really about brute strength. Sure, having gigantic arms and a buff chest helps, but a lot more goes into being a great power hitter. Countless guys who spend their careers in the minors get busted for steroids. They never hit 50 HR’s in an MLB season.
One of the great things about the statistical revolution and internet age in sports is that now we, as fans, have access to statistics based on player-value amongst his competition in any given year. Comparing someone like Bonds to Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron based sheerly off HR totals is a fundamentally flawed form of analysis. It’s like taking Wilt Chamberlain’s freakish per-game numbers and using them to stack him up against Shaq. Sure, it makes for a fan-friendly graphic on the TV, but it’s not moving the discussion forward at all.
Luckily, these stats allow us to now look at Bonds and compare him to the other notable power hitters of his time who are considered steroid users. So, let’s do that. Here’s a table showing the 5 year peak averages of Bonds and some of his peers. We all know what HR and OPS are. WAR is Wins above Replacement-level player and RAR is runs-created above replacement-level player. A “replacement-level player” is based on that particular season. All advanced numbers are adjusted to per-650 plate appearances, standard number adjusted to per-162 games.
Here is Bonds at his best compared to other known-users during the steroid era.
We’ll never know exactly how much of what substances different guys were using, so you have to assume a level playing field. What this shows is that stacked up against other steroid users, going against juiced pitchers, Bonds was WAY better than anybody else. It’s actually not close. Sosa, McGwire, and Giambi all struck out way too much. Bonds was a great contact hitter.
Today’s game sees less scoring and a lot less HR’s. But just for fun, here is Bonds’ peak vs. the peaks of some of todays top power hitters and a few clean steroid-era guys (I had to use 3-year peaks for Hamilton and Stanton). Remember, WAR is a stat on a year-by-year basis. So it’s not like guys had better WARs in different eras. It simply shows how good they are compared to their competition.
Nobody in modern baseball was/is even close to the respective dominance that Bonds showed during his heyday. The closest guy is Pujols (and Mike Trout, but his WAR is so high for many other reasons). Giancarlo Stanton is probably the best HR-hitter in the game right now. Well, over the course of a season, he barely gives you HALF as much value as Bonds did. That’s crazy.
And here comes the big one, stacking Bonds up against the legends. How dominant was he during his time compared to the great power hitters during theirs?
Note: Ted Williams’ stretch is longer because he took a three year break to serve in the military.
Again, WAR is the key hear. The chart speaks for itself. Peak Barry Bonds was the most dominant hitter in THE HISTORY OF THE GAME. By any statistical measure, the five best position players (at their best) of all-time are Bonds, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. Then you have Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Jimmie Foxx, Ernie Banks, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Mike Trout in the next tier.
Nobody has dominated the game the way Barry Bonds has. NOBODY.
With all of this being said, obviously you can’t definitively state that Bonds is the best player of all time. Steroids are always going to be a factor. And you can only go so far when comparing players across different eras. I just think it needs to be a more widely-accepted fact that Bonds, at a time when many of his peers were cheating in the same manner he was, was the most dominant player the game has ever seen.
Let’s also consider a young Bonds. A Pittsburgh Bonds. A skinny Bonds. We’re talking about a guy who stole 30+ bags NINE TIMES, while still being one of the games premier power hitters. Bonds won eight gold gloves. Even if he retired in ’93 before the ridiculous HR numbers, he’d still be one of the greatest players of all time.
Barry Bonds has never admitted to knowingly using PED’s. He was completely unapologetic throughout the highly-publicized BALCO scandal and succeeding perjury trial. I think that is a big factor in the public not forgiving him and still viewing him as a villain. Let’s say Bonds was to do a tell-all interview where he admitted to everything; would that help his reputation slightly? Probably, but then again, it may be too late at this point. One thing I will compliment Bonds for is that, post-retirement, he hasn’t been the selfish attention-seeker many make him out to be. He hasn’t been openly campaigning for the Hall of Fame voters to let him in. He hasn’t been doing press and denying things. He’s cut his losses. He drifted off into the sunset, and people are actually starting to forget about him.
Bonds became the poster-boy for the steroid era in baseball. We, as Americans, love a good scapegoat just as much as we love apple pie. We blame rap music and video games for young people committing violence. We blame teachers when our kids get a D on their report card. We blame whatever school of political thought we don’t agree with whenever there’s an issue facing our nation. I get it. It’s easy to point your finger at something. But what’s easy isn’t always what’s right or what’s best.
As much as we want to put athletes on a pedestal and view them as role models for our kids, at the end of the day, they’re human beings. Human beings are inherently flawed. All of them. I’m not saying that Bonds is a saint. What I’m saying is he’s not the scum-of-the-earth many paint him as.
Then again, maybe I’m too close to it all. I grew up as a baseball fan during the steroid era. Before I knew how to use the internet or had a phone that sent me notifications anytime something happened, I would watch SportsCenter every morning to see if Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire hit HR’s the previous night. I lived for the live look-ins of their at-bats. It was baseballs cultural peak (at least in my lifetime). Back in those days, the average sports fan could tell you on any given day how many HR’s those guys had for the season. Today, can the average sports fan even tell you who won the World Series three years ago without having to take a long pause to think about it?
I’m willing to accept the steroid era for what it was, another chapter in the games storied history. Not as a black mark. Not an asterisk. But as peculiar time when the game adapted just like it always does.
I believe Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame. I believe he’s the greatest positional player in the history of baseball. I don’t think he’s evil.
I forgive Barry Bonds.