Last 95 will be the hardest

Barry Bonds may still look unstoppable even at age 39, but it's still a long way to No. 756.

Originally Published: April 14, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Our friendly neighborhood mathematicians tell us that "at this rate," Barry Bonds will blow away Hank Aaron's career home run record in Game 15 of the 2006 season.

So be sure and book early, while there's still time to take advantage of those special 700-day advance-purchase fares.

Barry Bonds

It sure is a beautiful thing how our friendly neighborhood mathematicians can throw around those fun phrases like, "at this rate," at times like this.

If only everything in life happened "at this rate," we could all hit the Powerball, time the stock market and hit the trifecta at Saratoga pretty much at will. Which would leave us a lot more time to calculate the next 50 things about to happen "at this rate."

Well, we all know life doesn't work that way. So how come everybody is so confident that Barry Bonds is going to work that way?

We sure aren't. So we would like to offer a prediction we have offered in this space before:

Not only will Barry Bonds not be ascending that all-time-homer-king throne in Game 15 of 2006 ... we still believe he won't ascend it ever. Why? Because as great as Barry might be -- still -- we have our choice here of which "at-this-rate" chart we should use as the most accurate guidepost of what's in store for his future.

Many choose to look at Bonds' chart alone. We prefer to use a different chart -- the one that belongs to everyone else who has ever played baseball.

For Bonds to break Aaron's record, he is going to have to do way too many things that have never been done by baseball players his age -- in this or any era. So why should we believe that even someone as talented as this guy will prove to be that superhuman?

Barry Bonds

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 is 39 years old. And we all know what number comes next -- in a mere three months.

So for Bonds to keep on cranking out those home runs at the same rate he has for the last three years -- one every 7.74 at-bats, one every 2½ games, just about 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.

When he dunked that homer into McCovey Cove on Tuesday to pass his idol, Willie Mays, Bonds still needed 95 more home runs to catch Aaron. Let's think about that number -- 95 home runs.

That's more home runs than Jose Vidro or David Ortiz have hit in their entire careers. It's exactly as many as Alfonso Soriano has hit in his first three full seasons -- at ages 23, 24 and 25.

So ask yourself this: Is Barry going to duplicate Soriano's career starting right now, at age 39 3/4? Well, that's what we're asking him to do if he's going to break this record in his early 40s.

But forget Soriano. That number -- 95 home runs -- is more than Troy Glaus or Chipper Jones have hit over the last three years, in the primes of their careers. It's more than Carl Everett or Junior Griffey have hit over the last four years. Heck, it's more than Moises Alou has hit over the last five years.

So let's start with this premise: No matter how Bonds has made it look, 95 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, this 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, next year, 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.

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.

How many players in history hit another 95 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 95 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 over the last year, he has actually kept his hamstrings (and everything else) from popping better than he had in any prolonged stretch since he passed age 35. But that's no predictor of the future.

The past tells us 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, 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.

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. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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