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Time's not running out on Bonds

By JOHN ROMANO
Published April 16, 2004

By itself, the number means little. It's not a record. It's not even round. Other than sentimental purposes, its significance is minor.

It is mostly as a layover on the road to somewhere else that Barry Bonds' 661st home run figures prominently in baseball's hierarchy.

Yes, it got him past godfather Willie Mays at 660. But will it eventually be part of a grander march beyond Hank Aaron's 755?

The question is not new. It has been asked of other players, but always in an abstract sense. As in, do you suppose Alex Rodriguez might someday do it?

Now, for the first time, Aaron has a legitimate pursuer.

And, for the last time, Aaron's days as home run king are short.

This does not mean it will come easily. Or, some might argue, at all. Bonds still is 95 home runs from running Aaron down. That's a formidable number, even for a player who hit 73 home runs in 2001. Chipper Jones hasn't hit 95 home runs the past three seasons. Nor have Mike Piazza, Troy Glaus or Frank Thomas. We've become so numb to big numbers, we sometimes forget they are never guaranteed. Particularly over the long haul. Especially late in a career.

So, no, Bonds will not zip past Aaron.

But, yes, it appears he eventually will catch him.

Here's why:

The argument against Bonds is simple. He is three months from his 40th birthday and it is almost unprecedented for a power hitter to remain productive at that stage of his career.

It is a fine argument, with both history and biology on its side. The game's greatest sluggers never maintained the pace that will be required of Bonds. Aaron hit only 42 home runs after turning 40. Mays hit 32 and Babe Ruth hit six. Mark McGwire never even made it to 40.

So when no one else put up big numbers after 40, why should we assume Bonds will? Simple. Because he is like no one else.

For some, this realization has come grudgingly. For others, it still has not been accepted. But the truth is Bonds is the best hitter of his generation and, it's becoming more obvious, one of the best ever.

There is Ruth. There is Ted Williams.

And then, you might argue, there is Bonds.

They have been history's best at combining power and on-base percentage. Not merely respected by opponents, but feared.

What sets Bonds apart is he has gotten better as he has grown older. He set the single-season home run record at age 36. He won a batting title at 37. He was the National League MVP at 38.

And he began this season with a .440 batting average, a .600 on-base percentage and a .960 slugging percentage after 35 plate appearances. Those numbers would be obscene in a softball league.

Of course, it won't last. And, naturally, time will some day catch up to Bonds, too. But it has not yet. And if he can hold it off another 18 months, the record will be within reach.

That, essentially, is what it comes down to. Can Bonds maintain at least a high percentage of his skills through this season and next?

He hit 46 and 45 home runs in each of the past two seasons. Do you suppose he still is capable of hitting 35 this season? Based on his number of walks in the first week, opposing pitchers seem to think so. And, if the mid 30s are within reach this season, would 25 seem reasonable next year?

You see, if Bonds can get within 30-40 home runs of Aaron by the end of 2005 - and he may even be closer by then - the outcome seems inevitable.

The pressure, obviously, would be enormous. That goes for anyone. For Bonds, it will be worse.

Throughout most of his career, Bonds has gone to great lengths to portray himself as an ill-mannered lout. For the most part, it has worked.

He has been equally disrespectful to fans and media, with some teammates even getting a full dose of his rudeness.

That persona will not win Bonds favor as he moves closer to one of the greatest records in sports. Already he is seeing its effects when it comes to baseball's ongoing steroid scandal.

Though he has denied using illegal steroids, and has never been caught, Bonds is presumed guilty by many.

Some of that is due to the amount of circumstantial evidence surrounding his case. But some is also attributable to the natural dislike he seems to have invited over the years.

At this point, at least, the steroid issue seems to be the greatest threat facing Bonds. Certainly more than National League pitchers. And even more than age.

Like it or not, he is the best hitter many of us have ever seen.

And, in the next few seasons, he should have the numbers to prove it.

[Last modified April 16, 2004, 01:05:40]


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