I made note of it the other day in a blurb about a link, and immediately got hit up on facebook by a friend refuting my claim that Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player of all time. Personally, I don't even think it's all that close of a contest, but I'm willing to humor a few points that detractors usually point out:
- He's nothing compared to the all-time greats that did it without steroids: People who make this argument fail to remember that anabolic steroids were invented in the 1930s. The HR record that stood for decades was set by Roger Maris who hit 61 HRs in 1961. Yet he averaged less than half of that over his career and only twice reached 30 HRs in a season! Has anyone ever raised a red flag on him? It's also worth noting that the first black athlete didn't play until 1947. Sorry Babe Ruth... I'm not sure you'd have hit 714 HRs and had an ERA of 2.28 if you were playing against a sample of darker skinned athletes. If guys were taking boats from the Dominican and Central America at the rate they are now, he may not have even hit 600.
- He clearly did steroids in 2001 when he hit 73 HRs: Not so fast. It seems suspicious, I admit, but here's something to consider... Bonds hit 49 HRs in his first year at AT&T Park (or whatever it was called back then) in only 143 games. He previously played at the cavernous Candlestick Park. Candlestick was a park notorious for its swirling winds (When Willie Mays played there, it wasn't enclosed and the wind actually blew out to right). AT&T, on the other hand, has a right field porch that sits a measly 309 ft from home plate and winds that carry the ball out to right toward McCovey Cove. Isn't it possible that the reduction in the right field fence, the change in winds, and the change in style of play could account for some of those HRs? Pat Burrell hit 18 out of that place last year for crying out loud! Barry never hit as many HRs again, but he also never played in as many games over a season.
- Steroids! Steroids! Steroids! They're illegal: So? When has illegality stopped a baseball player from trying to gain an advantage? Mike Schmidt and your 1980 championship Phillies all pounded greenies like they were tic-tacs. Schmidt has even said that if steroids were handed to him, he probably would have considered taking them. How about other technological advancements since baseball first started? Maple baseball bats weren't sanctioned by MLB until 1997 (oddly right around the same time as the HR boom). Maple is considerably lighter than hickory or ash and has been proven to increase bat speed. Batting Gloves? Have you ever hit a foul ball of the handle of the bat without gloves and then tried to grip the bat for your next swing? They weren't used until 1964. But if we stick to medical enhancements, how about the plethora of over the counter nutritional supplements that are available? Mickey Mantle could have hit another dozen HRs a year if he could have taken B12 Vitamins to cure his wicked hangover after a night of heavy drinking. And shots... cortisone injections are a common occurrence in modern sports to reduce pain and swelling, but they cortisone wasn't marketed until the 50s and wasn't used as injection until the 60s. Lasic eye surgery didn't exist, Tommy John Surgery didn't exist, ACLs couldn't be repaired...
As a young player, he was a top of the lineup table-setter with solid power and a constant speed thread. He had terrific outfield range and a cannon for an arm. As he aged, he developed into a more patient hitter, compacted his swing and learned to drive the ball with his body. Over the course of his career, there is nothing that he didn't do to win ball games, and most of it was done before even a whisper of steroids were mentioned. He is #3 on the all-time Offensive WAR list, and #6 on the defensive list.
Was he a miserable man and likely a pain in the locker room? Absolutely. Did he take steroids? Most likely. Is the government wasting a ridiculous amount of money on his trial? Absolutely. Are there better pure "hitters" in the history of the game? Ted Williams would probably say yes. Did he ever win a World Series? Sadly, no. But in the history of baseball, has there ever been a more complete player over the course of one career? No.