At 40, Bonds defies logic

I know from experience that playing baseball at age 40 can be tough ... but Barry Bonds at 40 defies logic.

Originally Published: July 23, 2004
By Joe Morgan | Special to ESPN.com

Barry Bonds is on the verge of another milestone. On Saturday, the San Francisco Giants slugger will celebrate his 40th birthday.

This brings back memories of when I turned 40 in my next-to-last year in the major leagues. In fact, on my 40th birthday I hit two home runs -- I had a great day! But not all my games at 40 were like that.

I turned 40 on Sept. 19, 1983 when I was with the Philadelphia Phillies. On that team, I was reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Perez. We had been teammates on Cincinnati's Big Red Machine team that won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and '76.

With the '83 Phillies, we won the NL East and beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the playoffs (now the NLCS) to win the NL pennant. In the World Series, we fell to the Baltimore Orioles in five games.

Joe Morgan
Joe Morgan steals second base vs. the Pirates in '79 as Tim Foli covers the bag. Less than five years later, Morgan turned 40 ... and stealing bases became a more difficult proposition.
I played one full year at 40 the following year with the '84 Oakland Athletics -- actually turning 41 in September before the season was over.

Playing at 40 has both its physical and psychological challenges.

I found that on some days I could be very good, but on other days I could be very average.

Age made it tough to achieve the everyday consistency I enjoyed as a younger player.

Plus, the energy level and the excitement level weren't there everyday as they had been before. It was tough to sustain that for 162 games. I could sustain it and play well for four days in a row, but then there'd be a lull. Then I could do it for four more days, followed by another lull. That's what I experienced when I played my year at 40.

There were days when I was quick at second base getting after ground balls, and there were other days when I felt sluggish. The consistency just wasn't there. And logically, that's what happens to athletes at 40 or even earlier.

But with Bonds, logic doesn't apply. He's a different breed of athlete, a phenomenon. Bonds stats' on the verge of 40 are amazing: a .366 average and .619 on-base percentage (both MLB bests) with 24 home runs and 52 RBI.

Bonds is simply adding to the career numbers that make him one of the best players in major-league history (Willie Mays is the best I've seen, but Bonds is in the conversation). Bonds owns an MLB-record six MVP awards. He holds the single-season record of 73 homers. He's won a batting title, hitting .370 in 2002. This season, he became the career leader in walks (surpassing Rickey Henderson). He has eight Gold Gloves.

Aaron's Record Within Reach
As he closes in on 40, it appears that Barry Bonds is as good as he was at 37, when he set the single-season homer record in 2001. Who knows how long he can continue at his present rate? There's no way to predict if he can do this until he's 41 or 42 or 43 or even longer.

If Bonds really wants to, I believe he can break Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755 home runs. Bonds has 682 home runs now. If he hits 18 more homers this season, he'd have an even 700. The math is simple from there. If he plays three more seasons and averages just 20 home runs per season, Bonds would finish with 760.

If Bonds really wants to, I believe he can break Hank Aaron's record.
To prolong his career, Bonds could go to the the American League and be a DH. But based on my conversations with him, it appears that Bonds wants to finish his career in San Francisco and be honored there as legendary Giants Willie Mays and Willie McCovey have been honored (both Hall of Famers have statues there).

If Bonds stays in San Francisco and retires there, there's no question that he'll be an icon in the Bay Area, whether or not he breaks Aaron's record. Of course, given his amazing career, Bonds also will be an icon nationally.

It depends on what Bonds wants and what's more important to him: Staying in the NL in San Francisco and chasing Aaron? Or being virtually guaranteed of breaking Aaron's record by going to the AL?

Remember, we can't apply conventional logic to Barry. From what he's shown us so far, there's no reason to believe his skills will decline anytime soon. That time will come, but we just don't know when.

Barry Bonds
APIn April, Barry Bonds surpassed Willie Mays with his 661st career homer for third place on the all-time list.
Defensive Dynamics
While Bonds has exhibited no decline at the plate, his defensive skills have shown some age. He's no longer a Gold Glove left fielder, but that's true of every great fielder as age takes its toll. Omar Vizquel is one of the greatest defensive shortstops ever, with nine Gold Gloves to his credit. However, I don't think Vizquel is a Gold Glover today.

At some point, you lose a step or your reflexes aren't quite as sharp -- that's the law of age and the human body. But a fielder who wins a Gold Glove is still very good (or at least above-average) when his skills begin to decline.

Bonds never had a great arm -- he used a quick release, even when he was winning Gold Gloves. Clearly, he isn't as good defensively as he was then. Of Bonds' eight Gold Gloves, five came with the Giants and three with the Pittsburgh Pirates (where he started his career and played from 1986-92).

There's been talk about Bonds being the best defensive left fielder ever. That's tough to gauge for me, because I didn't see players from previous eras. But I'd say he's among the top three left fielders of all time. Keep in mind that center field is the prime outfield position, with right field next (center field requires exceptional speed, while right field requires a strong arm for the longer throws to third base, etc.).

What about baserunning at this point in Bonds' career? When I watch him run the bases, it doesn't appear that he's lost much foot speed.

I've observed him become a smarter baserunner, though. He's his own coach now -- he looks at the outfield as he's running, and he knows where fielders are positioned. Bonds is still a good baserunner as he uses his baseball instincts and intelligence. He still scores from second on singles and from first on doubles, and some younger players are unable to do that.

An American Steroid Perspective
I'm amazed at how tremendous Bonds has been again this year in the face of continued steroid accusations and rumors. It shows how strong he is. That situation would have affected most other people negatively. Bonds' mental toughness is another reason why he defies logic and why there's no telling how far into his 40s he can keep playing effectively.

I'm still upset that the BALCO steroid investigation has dragged on this long. If they have hard evidence on major-league players, why haven't they indicted anyone? It's just been more of the same unsupported innuendoes.

As I've said before, I hope that every athlete who is using steroids or has used steroids gets caught. But we shouldn't be changing our American values regarding presumption of innocence and the rules of evidence just to go after athletes.

Whether the topic is baseball or the Olympics, we're Americans first and steroid hunters second.
Usually I deal only with baseball in this column, but like everyone else I've been following the Olympic trials and the steroid accusations being thrown at several American track-and-field athletes. In a great article this week in the New York Times, Bill Rhoden wrote that track athletes need a union like other sports so they can't be picked out individually and attacked.

Only the biggest track stars, like Marion Jones, have the money to fight accusations through the legal system.

Another article I read this week, in USA Today, quoted Roger Abrams, a sports law specialist at the Northeastern University law school. Abrams said, "We've got to keep in mind that these are American athletes and we are American fans. If we attempt to level the playing field by not playing fair ourselves, what have we accomplished?"

Abrams' point is this: The U.S. Olympic Committee is trying to prove to the world that we're sending a clean team to Athens ... but at what expense? Are we willing to trample on the rights of American citizens/athletes to do that?

Abrams also said, "When someone's reputation and livelihood are at stake, it seems that they're at least entitled to some of the same protections we give an accused criminal."

I agree with that 100 percent. Those are great quotes and great thoughts for all of us to live by -- because, whether the topic is baseball or the Olympics, we're Americans first and steroid hunters second.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.