Bonds the all-time HR king? Don't count on it

Hitting home runs seems all too easy for Barry Bonds. But his breaking the all-time HR record still appears unlikely.

Originally Published: August 15, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We know now that Barry Bonds is going to pass Willie Mays on the all-time home run list unless he gets hit by a bus.

And at this point, it's a good bet Barry is going to pass the immortal George H. Bambino Ruth, too, unless he gets intentionally walked in his next 850 consecutive trips to the plate.

But is our man Barry going to catch The Big One? That's the question. Is he going to catch and pass the great Hank Aaron and become the official Most Prolific Home Run Hitter of All Time?

Well, he might. But we wouldn't recommend betting a Pac Bell seat license on it. Here's why:

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds changes the game even when he doesn't swing.

Because as amazing as Barry is at turning around a fastball, there's one high hard one even he can't turn around. And that's the calendar that keeps coming at him, 100 miles an hour, no matter how superhuman he might look right now.

That calendar knows that Bonds just turned 39 years old. And we all know what number comes next. So for Bonds to keep on cranking out those home runs at the same rate he has for the last three years -- one every 7.67 at-bats, one every 2 games, upwards of 55 a season -- would defy every precedent, every page in the baseball history books, every time-established limit on human performance by men his age.

At the time we're drafting this opus, he needs 105 more home runs to catch Aaron. Let's think about that number -- 105 home runs.

That's exactly as many home runs as Albert Pujols, maybe the best hitter on the non-Bondsian portion of the planet, has hit in his whole career -- at ages 21, 22 and 23. Ask yourself this: Is Barry going to duplicate Pujols' career starting right now, at age 39? Well, that's what we're asking him to do if he's going to break this record in his early 40s.

But forget Pujols. Carlos Beltran still hasn't hit 105 homers yet. Neither have Darin Erstad, Pat Burrell or Dmitri Young. Among many, many others.

So let's start with this premise: No matter how Bonds has made it look, 105 homers is still a whole lot of home runs -- for anybody.

Now, should we assume Barry is going to keep cranking out 40 or 50 home runs a year, clear into his 40s? Well, we'll grant you he's as great a hitter than almost anyone who ever played. But remember this: Nobody else ever has.

Exactly one man in the history of the sport ever hit 40 home runs at age 39. (And, if we use the universally accepted July 1 age cutoff date, next season would count as Bonds' 39-year-old season, even though he'll play almost 40 percent of it at age 40.) That's Aaron, who did it in 1973.

It undoubtedly seemed back then as if Hank would keep on hammerin' 40 or so indefinitely, too. Uh, guess again. Aaron's next three years went: 20 homers, 12 and 10 -- for a TOTAL of 42 over the rest of his career.

Then would come Bonds' 40-year-old season. Just one 40-year-old man in history has ever hit 30 homers in a season. That's Darrell Evans, who hit 34 in 1987 for a Tigers team that played in the perfect left-handed hitter's park, Tiger Stadium. We remind you that Bonds plays in the hardest ballpark in baseball for a left-handed hitter (besides himself, that is) to hit a home run.

OK, let's keep going. Most home runs by a 41-year-old: 29, by Ted Williams in 1961. Most by a 42-year-old: 18, by Carlton Fisk, in 1990. Most by a 43-year-old: 18, also by Fisk, in 1991. And after that, it isn't even worth counting anymore.

If (Barry) Bonds does get to (Hank) Aaron's doorstep, we would jump on the next plane any place to witness his chase. It would be that great a story. But let's just say we haven't called our travel agent yet, because take our word for it: The Road to Aaron is a lot longer than it may look from here.

So to break this record, Bonds is going to need to keep churning out historic, or nearly historic seasons, for a man his age every year -- at least for three years, and, if he suffers any kind of major injury, possibly for a year or two or three after that.

Oh, maybe he will. He's done a heck of a job of making age seem irrelevant in his upper 30s. But it's a lot to assume.

Let's say he stays on his current pace and hits another 15 home runs this year. That would leave him 90 away from Aaron. Which seems eminently achievable on the surface.

But let's look closer. How many players in history hit 90 home runs in their careers, starting with their 39-year-old season? Exactly two -- Evans (96) and Fisk (95). Of the spectacular trio of Aaron (82), Mays (60) and Ruth (28), only Aaron came close.

And that's a statistic that doesn't even factor in how many seasons a guy played after 39. Fisk played seven more years. Evans played four. Obviously, Bonds is a superior hitter to either of those men. But they at least stand as living proof that those last 90 home runs are the hardest.

So what Bonds is going to need to do, most of all, to break this record is just stay healthy enough to play. And he's in the midst of his healthiest (no hamstring pulls) seasons in three years. But that's no predictor of the future.

All the past tells us is that guys in their 40s rarely play a lot of baseball games. In fact, according to Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Encyclopedia, only two outfielders whose careers began in the post-expansion era (1961-on) even played 250 more games in their careers, starting with age 39.

One is Rickey Henderson, who, amazingly, has played more than 600. The other is Willie McGee, who ran out of steam at 252.

Obviously, Bonds can always flee to the American League and DH. That worked for Dave Parker, Dave Winfield and Eddie Murray, not to mention Paul Molitor and Harold Baines. It could, most likely, work for Barry, too. We'll leave it to you folks to determine whether that would cheapen the feat at all.

But if Bonds wanted to keep playing, somebody would undoubtedly give him the chance. What we don't know is whether he'll want to. He has consistently said he doesn't even want to break Aaron's record. So if he means that, that's one less reason to think he will.

If Bonds does get to Aaron's doorstep, we would jump on the next plane any place to witness his chase. It would be that great a story. But let's just say we haven't called our travel agent yet, because take our word for it: The Road to Aaron is a lot longer than it may look from here.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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