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Thursday, May 4, 2006
Barry, without the extra boost

By Peter Keating
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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Peter Keating's new book, "Dingers: A Short History of the Long Ball,", (c) 2006 by Peter Keating. Excerpted by permission of ESPN Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Here's a look back at Barry Bonds' career, and what might have happened without his alleged steroids use.

The greatest player anyone reading these pages is likely to see, Barry Bonds is also one of baseball's most reviled superstars. With a combination of power and plate discipline unmatched at least since Ted Williams, Bonds holds the single-season home run record (73 in 2001) and, with 708 career dingers, opened the 2006 season in hot pursuit of Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755). But throughout a career that has netted him an otherworldy seven MVP awards, Bonds has remained unapologetically uninterested in cultivating the affections of teammates, sportswriters or fans.

He has also been a long-term, heavy user of performance-enhancing drugs, according to published reports that broke in March 2006.

You know about Bonds' personality. Tagging him as arrogant doesn't do justice to the way he has leveraged his immense talent into creating his own world within a team sport. Bonds has considerable charm and intelligence, but he came into baseball preprogrammed by his father, Bobby, and his godfather, Willie Mays, to expect the worst from outsiders, and has spent 20 years churlishly walling himself off from the rest of us.

As a player, Bonds continues to be, of course, the central character in baseball's steroids drama. He first tried andro in January 1997, according to research by my ESPN the Magazine colleague Shaun Assael. And according to Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle, Bonds turned to harder stuff as he watched the 1998 home run derby. Among the substances Bonds allegedly used: Clomid, a women's fertility drug; human growth hormone; insulin; Modafinil, a narcolepsy treatment; trenbolone, a steroid used to bulk up cattle; and "the cream" and "the clear," designer anabolics from BALCO Laboratories.

The exposure of Bonds' reported juicing gravely threatens his legacy, which has two parts. Through the 2000 season, Bonds' career traced a comprehensible path. He had won the last of his three MVP awards seven years earlier. He had last led the league in OPS in 1995. He still had immense power, but was losing some of his speed, and had lost a third of a season to injuries in 1999. All of this suggests an arc with an extremely high peak, but one that is still parabolic.

Bonds' back-to-back MVP awards in 1992 and 1993 represent a level reached by very few players, with the latter season, his first in San Francisco, ranking among the very greatest ever put together by a left fielder. Playing half his games in Candlestick Park, under terrible hitting conditions, Bonds smacked 46 homers and posted an OPS of 1.136, the highest in baseball since Norm Cash in 1961. Essentially, through the first 2,000 games of his career, Bonds showed that at his peak, he could hit like Williams while stealing up to 52 bases a year and perennially winning Gold Gloves.

But then he slugged 73 home runs in 2001. And hit .370 to win a batting title in 2002. And drew 232 walks, 120 of them intentional, in 2004. Those numbers are beyond incredible -- and they changed not only the shape of Bonds' career, and not only the games in which he appeared (often reducing them to spectacles staged around his plate appearances), but also the very fabric of baseball's statistical history.

The single least understood aspect of baseball stats is this: everything is relative not to league averages but to the gap between league leaders and league averages. It's easiest to see this with batting averages.

In 1925, Rogers Hornsby, then with the Cardinals, hit .403. He was able to do so not only because it was a great year for National League batters overall -- the entire league batted .292 -- but because in those days, dominant players could exceed run-of-the-mill performers to an exceptional extent.

In 1908, Honus Wagner hit .354, 48 percent better than the National League average of .239. Hornsby exceeded the league in 1925 by 38 percent. By 1991, Terry Pendleton was winning the NL batting title with a .319 mark, just 28 percent better than the league (.250).

This gap, across almost all categories, has been shrinking through most of baseball history, with the exception of periods (such as World War II or just after expansions) when subpar players have entered the game, allowing league leaders to temporarily establish greater dominance.

Stephen Jay Gould explained why in 1986: as the average talent level of all players rises, it becomes harder for exceptional players to truly stand out. Back when Wee Willie Keeler said, "Hit 'em where they ain't," Gould wrote, it was easier for players to take his advice. But with bigger, stronger, more racially diverse players, nobody could tower over the game the way Babe Ruth did.

Until Barry Bonds.

Bonds singlehandedly jammed the decline in the gap between league leaders and league averages, and then threw it into reverse. For instance, with slugging averages of .863 in 2001 (103 percent better than the NL average) and .812 in 2004 (92 percent better), Bonds surpassed his peers to a Ruthian degree, when by all rights the undertow of the modern, global talent pool should have been dragging him back to the pack.

And so the question of how much illegal performance enhancers contributed to Bonds' performance isn't just disturbing, it is key to fully evaluating him. Bonds' first 15 seasons make him one of the three best left fielders in history; his next four would make him one of the three best players in history. Too bad we can no longer take them seriously.

We will probably never know the entire story of what Bonds was ingesting and when -- MLB allowed its version of Dealey Plaza to go virtually uninvestigated. But we can examine what his career might have looked like if he had available to him only the strength and conditioning techniques used by comparable sluggers of the past.

Suppose we examine the 16 players who hit 500 home runs and are not currently active, and see how their performance changed from season to season as they grew older. For example, this group averaged 83 RBI at the age of 38 and 76, 8.4 percent fewer, at age 39. If we do this for every category in every year, we'll come up with a composite profile of how history's greatest sluggers aged. Then apply that profile to Bonds, taking his career stats through age 35 and grafting onto them a historically typical decline due to age instead of the numbers he actually posted.

At the bottom of the page you'll see what Bonds' career might look like if he had aged the way other great power hitters did, instead of exploding in 2001. Basically, had he stayed clean, he could have been Willie Mays with better plate discipline.

If the reports about Bonds are correct, cheating helped net him a 73-dinger season and a $90-million contract. But now, fans will likely disdain his entire career, not merely the portion of it amped by the juice.

Who will care about what he could have been?

THE BARRY NUMBERS
  G AB R H HR RBI BB SO AVG
THROUGH AGE 35 2143 7456 1584 2157 494 1405 1547 1189 .289
ACTUAL, THROUGH 2005 2730 9140 2078 2742 708 1853 2311 1434 .300
ADJUSTED, THROUGH 2005 2686 9225 1987 2656 634 1780 1921 1496 .288

Peter Keating's new book, "Dingers: A Short History of the Long Ball," is available now on Amazon.com.