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How Barry Bonds Made His Case for Greatness 15 Summers Ago

The greatest player of his generation was never better than he was in 2001

Barry Bonds, Greatness, 2001

Barry Bonds hits a home run for the Giants

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Sometimes it feels as if we’re trying to forget Barry Bonds, like we’re trying to distance the game of baseball as far from him as possible.

Of course, Bonds, he of the BALCO scandal, the man who lied to a grand jury, and apparently the Number Two most “legendary asshole” behind the most famous garbage monster in American sports history, Ty Cobb, brought most of it upon himself. Bonds gained such a reputation over the years for being the worst person to play alongside or interview that despite everything – all the home runs and stolen bases, the seven MVPs, the eight Gold Gloves, numerous all-star appearances, and the fact that a manager (Buck Showalter, no less) would tell his pitcher to internationally walk Bonds with bases loaded instead of pitching to him – it’s like he’s becoming Marty McFly stuck in the past with a photo of him and his siblings from the future; he’s just fading away and time is running out.

Fifteen years ago was the Summer of Barry Bonds. On any given night, whether you caught the game on TV or were in the ballpark, the chances were high that you’d see Bonds hit one of his record 73 home runs. Sometimes he’d hit two, like on July 18th against Mike Hampton of the Rockies, in the 4th and then the 5th; then eight days later, facing Curt Schilling, again going deep in the 4th and then the 5th. He’d crank out another pair on September 9th against another Colorado pitcher, and then there’d be silence from Bonds, from baseball, and all across America. When America’s pastime came back a week after 9/11, a symbol of all that’s supposed to be great even during the wretched dog days, Bonds did as well. He hit one more before the official end of summer, and another two-home run performance on September 23rd, against Jason Middlebrook of the Padres, one day after autumn officially began. The Giants wouldn’t make the playoffs, but for a country in mourning, Bonds chasing and breaking Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record during those last weeks of play provided fans with something to look forward to. Waiting for each home run that took a few mere seconds to leave whatever park it was flying out of felt like hours of diversion for those of us that use baseball as a way to reconnect with the feeling that things can be better and possibly great.

Just that one summer alone should still have us talking about Barry Bonds and what he meant and means to the game. But then the next year, with everything feeling like it was going to hell, Bonds would hit the ball out of the park 45 times in 390-at bats, and go on to two more seasons with 45 home runs, only to be sidelined for most of 2005 with a knee injury. Of course that doesn’t even cover the other 40-plus home run seasons Bonds had prior to 2001, all of which would help him eventually overtake Hank Aaron as the game’s king of the long ball. But when we needed home runs, Bonds was more than happy to supply them.

What fan doesn’t love a home run? Your team can be down by nine runs in the ninth on the hottest day of the year and some young kid that just called up smacks one out and it feels like you can deal with the humiliating loss. And whether you care about how he did it or not, Barry Bonds remains the greatest home run hitter in the history of the game, which means, when fans really needed it the most, Bonds was constantly the most exciting thing about baseball. You’d watch as he’d zero in on the ball hurdling towards him, and then, in what in real-time looks like one spectacular motion, all of the power in his 6-foot-‘2″ frame would work its way to his upper body, and some lucky fan paddling in McCovey Cove would get a souvenir. 

Fifteen years after Barry Bonds did that 73 times, he has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first four years of eligibility. Since players can only be on the ballot for 10 years, his chances grow slimmer every day. And since teams tend to only retire numbers worn by Hall of Famers, a number 25 Giants jersey is still up for grabs (although equipment manager Mike Murphy does everything in his power to make sure that won’t happen). Despite all of the personal and professional failings of a number of the game’s greatest players who have been inducted into Cooperstown (Tris Speaker and Cap Anson were reportedly members, or had ties of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance), the legacy of Barry Bonds seems destined to spend eternity in baseball purgatory, his great post-retirement tribute would be Kanye West naming one of best and most underrated songs on Graduation after him. The greatest player of his generation, and one of the greatest ever now serves as a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins, maybe hoping that his work with younger players can help soften his image, or maybe he just can’t stand to be away from the game.

Either way, Barry Bond isn’t a victim. If you can’t find it in you to allow even the tiniest bit of respect for him as a person or ballplayer that’s entirely your right, and you earned it since he did so much damage to his own reputation. Chances are that the majority of his supporters are also Giants fans who can look past his bad attitude towards the media or the fact that he never brought a title to the Bay Area (that’s probably especially easy to forget since the team would win the whole thing in 2010, just three years after Bonds walked away from the game, and then twice more since then), but then there are others that recall what it felt like to see him send one flying an a near-nightly basis in 2001, or any other time over his career.

All great sports stories mirror fiction in some way. The Dickensian childhood stories of a Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle; Dan Marino or Charles Barkley as Gatsby-esque characters, wanting so badly to win a championship, but ultimately not getting what they wanted in the end; the old gunslinger, Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning, having one last great game, all hardened and past their prime like “Rooster” Cogburn in True Grit. Some could say that Bonds, along with Roger Clemens and even Mark McGwire, all fulfill the Faustian deal with the devil trope. They sold their souls to be greater and they suffered in the end for it. What good is the glory if you can’t have the respect?

To use another comparison to literature, Bonds is like baseball’s version of Jacob Marley from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The perjury charges and his obstruction of justice conviction would eventually be dropped, but exactly fifteen years after Barry Bonds was there when we needed him the most, hitting baseballs out of the park almost daily, there’s still no forgiveness for Bonds from the writers whose forgiveness would remove the heavy chains that he wears in his baseball afterlife. Chains that, like the famous ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s deceased partner, Bonds created during his time as a player.

It’s a pretty heavy-handed comparison, sure, but often when making the case for forgiveness you have to resort to such things. Bonds, who could see a pitch coming at him so perfectly that he hit more home runs than anybody else in the history of the game, had undeniable skill. He could be counted on to get on base more often than not, and then be a threat to steal another base. But most of all, Barry Bonds was a home run hitter throughout his entire career, and 15 years ago, he hit the most when we needed home runs. That alone would make a good case for Barry Bonds being paid the post-career respect he deserves. That alone should have us looking at one of the greatest baseball players in a different light.  

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