It’s easy to put a gigantic asterisk next to the career of Barry Bonds. It’s easy to discredit all of his accomplishments because of the steroid usage. The 762 home runs, seven MVP awards, the 2,935 hits, and the numerous other accolades, will forever be overshadowed by the fact Barry Bonds cheated.
There is just one small fact, people tend to forget when thinking about Bonds.
He had unworldly amounts of talent – the Michael Jordan of baseball.
Bonds was most certainly one of the most naturally gifted players to ever play the game. On a list of the top five-tool players of all time, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez come to mind. Willie Mays might just be the most talented of the aforementioned five-tool players.
When thinking of the greatest players of all time, though, what players come to mind? Babe Ruth more than likely tops the list for most people, after Ruth, it could be a number of other famous players. Ty Cobb, Mays, and Ted Williams are all players that are very likely to be considered the greatest ever.
Baseball is criminally political, probably the most political sport in America. So politics will also play a huge role in the thought process behind why Bonds will never be atop anyone’s list of the greatest players.
But could Bonds be the greatest baseball player of all time?
It’s hard to compare the stats of Bonds and Ruth, as Bonds amassed 2,935 hits and 762 home runs in 22 MLB seasons, whereas Ruth had 2,873 hits and 714 home runs in 22 MLB seasons. Ruth retired 51 years before Bonds’ rookie year. Baseball in 1935 was completely different from baseball in 1986. Do the Dazzy Vance‘s, Dolf Luque‘s and Lefty Grove‘s of the ’20s and ’30s compare to the Pedro Martinez‘s, Roger Clemens‘ and Randy Johnson‘s of the Bonds era?
Much of the ‘who’s-the-best-player-of-all-time’ argument is predicated on who was the better hitter. When talking about pitching, the old adage, “you’re only as good as what you go up against” applies. Babe Ruth is unequivocally a top three player of all time, first and foremost. Can it be argued that Bonds faced better pitching? Maybe. However, the main problem the majority of fans have with calling bonds the greatest of all time, is steroids.
Yes, Barry Bonds took steroids. But Hank Aaron also admitted to taking amphetamines, better known as ‘greenies’ as did Mays, Mickey Mantle and countless others. Hammerin’ Hank is considered the true home run king, since Bonds juiced. Does Hank get a pass because amphetamines weren’t tested for back then? Not a soul on earth vilifies Aaron for coming out and saying he took amphetamines, and they shouldn’t. They were common practice back then, just as steroids were common practice in the late ’80s to early ’00s.
The problem is, steroids and amphetamines can prolong a career. If Griffey took steroids, or, even stretched before games, he may have hit 800+ home runs. If Bonds didn’t take steroids, he doesn’t hit 762 home runs, even without the steroids, it still might be enough to consider him the greatest.
It’s pretty safe to say that Bonds started juicing in 2001, the year he hit 73 home runs. The numbers don’t even seem real, four straight MVPs, a gross 1.422 OPS in 2004, and 120 IBBs as well in 2004? Which by the way, is an MLB record. It must be noted also, that they only started tracking intentional walks in 1955, no one will ever know how many IBBs Ruth had, but a lot, most likely. As this graphic shows, the steroid years are relatively obvious.
It’s funny, in 1998, the Giants were playing the Diamondbacks, this is when Buck Showalter was the manager in Arizona. Bonds came to the plate with the bases loaded, and Buck walked him. Bonds is one of the only players in history where it seemed more than logical to walk him with the bases loaded. Diamondbacks ended up winning 8-7, thanks to Buck.
Bonds has the record for most intentional walks in a single season, on that list, he’s also second, third, tied for sixth (with himself) ninth, thirteenth, sixteenth, twentieth, twenty-sixth, twenty-seventh, and so on.
Even before the steroids, Bonds was the most feared hitter in baseball, but he was also a two-way player. Eight Golden Glove Awards in the outfield in nine seasons, cannot be overlooked. Bonds’ career dWAR was 6.7, whereas Ruth’s career dWAR was -2.3. Defense has to be a huge factor when determining the greatest ever, if not, Ruth may edge out Bonds. As for stolen bases, Bonds has the huge advantage, Bonds was a demon on the base paths the first 12 seasons of his career, and in 22 seasons accumulating 514 stolen bases (33rd all-time) to Ruth’s 123.
Well, Cobb had 897 stolen bases, and highest career batting average in baseball history, but even Cobb’s best season can’t compare to Bonds because Cobb didn’t hit for power. in 1911, Cobb hit .420, with an OBP of .467, which means the only way he was getting on base, was getting a hit, he drew just 44 walks that season. He finished that season with an OPS of 1.088 – which is still not comparable to Bonds’ ’04 season where he hit .362, had an OBP of .609, and an OPS of 1.422. Not to mention, Cobb finished his career with a -10.4 dWAR, which is laughable, but his ridiculous hitting makes up for it. Mays was similar to Bonds, in the sense that, he was a very complete player, and his defense blew Bonds’ defense out of the water, but in terms of slugging, OPS, home runs and intentional walks, Bonds beats Mays.
It’s widely accepted, that the steroid era saved baseball. With the exception of the strike in ’94 that almost killed the sport, Bonds played a pivotal role in helping save the sport, and that’s almost undeniable.
Essentially, when trying to say a player is the best of all time, many things need to be taken into consideration. Talent is huge, and Bonds wasn’t just one of the most talented players to ever play the game, he was also one of the best. Although some look at that period of baseball as a black eye for the sport, there’s no denying how much it brought to the sport. Ruth was a great overall hitter, Cobb was a great contact hitter and great base-stealer, Hank Aaron was a great overall hitter. In terms of being the complete package, Willie Mays is the closest to Bonds. But overall, when looking for the complete player, regardless of baseball politics, vilification and steroid use, Barry Bonds is the best player to ever play the game of baseball.
*if* griffey took steroids? not to rumomonger, but the fact is we’ll never know because he’s so adorable and he never put a target on his own back like bonds and arod did. but a logical person realizes that even darlings like junior and jeter likely would’ve taken any edge they could back before ped’s were expressly banned. all steroids are not equal, and all bodies don’t change the same.
but for me, it doesn’t matter. over the decades the height of the mound has changed, the quality of the ball has changed; there have been trends in park dimensions. no change is more significant than the sport before and after jackie robinson. diet, conditioning, cortisone, lasik eye surgery have all informed modern baseball. recently we’ve seen the effects of specialized relievers, defensive shifts and the low strike gratuitously attributed to a war on steroids. any student of baseball knows that its history is crowded with cheaters of all stripes. i, for one, am happy to have been alive for the home run race of 1998; it was thrilling. and i consider myself lucky to have witnessed the career of the greatest of all time: barry bonds.
Vicki – thank you for this insightful comment, everything you said in this was very informative. Thanks for reading.
First Off Bonds Couldn’t shine Aaron’s shoes. Aaron was the greatest base ball player of all time. 3,771 hits 755 homers lifetime 3.04 avg. Not to mention 2297 RBI. King of RBI’s. He is also a great Man. A good attitude. Not just because I met him and treasure his autograph. Bonds is the HR king. So be it..Sad but true….But it was fun watching baseball as a kid and honoring great Ball players. To me HERO”S.likes of Aaron,Mays,Mcovey,Gibson,Jenkings,Banks,Bench,Morgan,Carew,Olivia, Kaline Brock Lolich I left out a lot more..Where are the real baseball Hero’s? Not much today..
I agree that Bonds is in the top three with Ruth and Mays, but you completely failed to mention the 20.3 WAR Ruth compiled as a Pitcher. Simply comparing their defense is insufficient when one of the players also won 94 games, threw 105 CG, 17 Shutouts, won 20 games twice and won an ERA title. It’s Babe Ruth’s pitching career that puts him over the top as the greatest player ever.
Paul – thank you for reading. The failure to mention Ruth’s WAR as a pitcher, and Ruth as a pitcher overall was intentional. I agree that he was an unbelievable pitcher, but I cannot place him first in the greatest player of all time category, based on how well he pitched in 1916, and 1917. It’s hard to compare pitchers from that era, to pitchers from the modern era. He pitched 650 innings in two years, remarkable? Absolutely. Could he have been one of the best in baseball? Most likely – but my problem is, pitching vs batting, defense, stolen bases etc isn’t fair to mix in together. I completely see your argument, but it’s hard for me to make it. Again, I appreciate you taking the time to read!
Jr. was always and will always be better than Bonds. He was the natural.
Barry Bonds in my mind is without question the greatest of all time. Go back and watch the games! Try to imagine Ruth playing when Bonds played. To me it’s laughable. I honestly think if Ruth was able to take a time machine into the 90’s and 2000’s he would be an absolute bust. Remember that these days the greatest players in the world are in MLB not your friends grandpa from down the street. Bonds would’ve batted around .500 against the pitchers Ruth faced.
For some reason everyone overlooks the somewhat obvious point you make–the athletes of today are better than the ones of the 1910s, 1920s, etc., in every quantifiable sport. Ruth was a great, great player, but he played in a different time in a much shallower talent pool. That Bonds could dominate the way he did during the time he played is unbelievable.
Also, Ruth doesn’t get extra points for pitching (although it does certainly add to his legacy). In any given season, he was a great pitcher OR a great batter; the two weren’t a compounded contribution to a game.