Will the Giants slugger finally get the recognition and redemption he deserves?
Barry Bonds stood up from his seat on an unseasonably balmy July evening Friday in San Francisco to an impromptu standing ovation from a 2/3rds full stadium there to watch their last-place ballclub square off against the equally dead-to-rights Miami Marlins. AT&T Park, a bandbox custom built atop an old industrial dumping site so that Bonds could deposit homers into the bay, never seemed more welcoming to the 52-year-old Home Run King.
Forced out of the game a decade ago, no. 25 emerged clean from a federal investigation that was tougher than any inquest the current White House would ever point towards our hacked election and spent a good portion of the last ten years on a road bike slimming down to his varsity weight from the first half of his career.
Fans who hadn’t seen Bonds in a while and recall only the magically bloated, pro wrestler-style, action figure version—witnessed a sharp looking broad-shouldered gent in a size 44 jacket with a 30 waist smiling and gazing toward the horizon.
Earlier that day, he was enshrined on the gimmicky Giants’ “Wall of Fame” a street-facing promenade outside the ballpark that features the busts of such San Francisco greats as Marvin Benard, Shawn Estes, Kirk Rueter, Scott Garrelts, J.T. Snow, Chris Speier, Rod Beck, Chili Davis, John Burkett, Kirt Manwaring and Johnnie LeMaster—the career .222-hitting Giants shortstop who once famously wore a game jersey with “Boo” on the nameplate to acknowledge if not encourage the chorus that greeted him each time he stepped to the plate.
Bonds also joins his father, Bobby, and godfather, Willie Mays, along with Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Vida Blue, Orlando Cepeda and Will Clark—scions of the organization whose presence is still felt around the clubhouse. Of that group, Bobby, who died in 2003, is the only one who isn’t routinely spotted in the locker room or the owners’ box.
Bonds—after spending a season as a hitting coach in Miami, where he became tight with many of the players including Jose Fernandez, the ace who died in a boating accident last summer, and slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who he used to challenge (and beat) in batting practice HR derbies—has returned to San Francisco as special assistant to the CEO. “This is my family,” he told the small crowd gathered for the wall ceremony, and there was no reason to doubt he’ll be there to stay.
Bonds’ return to the fold is more than symbolic and comes at a unique time for his legacy and for baseball. Hall of Fame voters, many of whom once towed the holier-than-thou line against PED-era greats Bonds and Roger Clemens, are starting to thaw—or at least turnover. Though still a dozen votes short of election this year, their fifth season on the ballot, 13 out of the 14 new Hall of Fame voters selected both Bonds and Clemens and the conventional wisdom is changing re: casting them as pariahs. The current thread is that the playing field was level in the era of rampant drug use, and there are a pair of players who remained the best through it who aren’t in the Hall.
But what may fully bring Bonds’ reputation around is the fact that baseball is reverting to its long-ball boom times of the early 2000s. In fact, outside of the 2000 season, baseball in 2016 had the most home runs ever hit with 5,610, an average of 1.16 home runs per game per team. This year MLB is tracking for a record-shattering 6,123 dingers.
The power surge is coming from a young crop of athletes, some of whom were still in elementary school when Bonds was forced into retirement. On the top of the marquee is Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, who leads all of baseball with his 30 home runs on the season. Friday Judge broke Joe DiMaggio’s franchise record for rookie HRs. He also became just the third Yankee to hit 12 homers in the team’s first 25 games, joining Babe Ruth and Alex Rodriguez.
Here on the left coast, the Dodgers’ rookie Cody Bellinger has 24 home runs on the season and reached the 22 home run marker faster than any player in history, doing so in his 52nd game.
And somewhere in the middle, Baltimore rookie Trey Mancini tied the rookie home run record with seven home runs in his first 12 major league games. ‘
On the old-guy side of the spectrum, sluggers of yore who have seemed to find their stroke again in their dotage include Albert Pujols, who passed the 600 career HR mark in early June, and Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre who reached the 450 club in May and June respectively.
Baseball is also careening toward a record 40k strikeouts this season, so clearly the trend in hitting the ball majestic is coming at a price. Swings change, mechanics change and trends change, but winning with the long ball is a thing again. Of the top ten home run-hitting teams in MLB this year, only one (Oakland) is not in contention. Early playoff favorites Yankees, Dodgers, Brewers and Nationals are all up there with the juggernaut Astros leading the majors in big flies. The Giants, not surprisingly, are last in the majors in home runs, with only 73. That’s the number Bonds alone hit in 2001.
Whether the team chooses to retire no. 25 or whether he gets into the Hall seems secondary to the fact that even with three world championship rings since the slugger departed the San Francisco dugout there has been a permanent vacancy in the Giants left field and no similar pop has been found in the heart of the order. The Giants re-built their franchise around young, live arms in the wake of Bonds’ era, the kneejerk baseball equivalent of your ex dating the guy with all the tattoos and piercings. Still, the waters of McCovey Cove yearn and churn for splash hits and it’s a shame that visiting clubs get to have all the fun.