I have always loved the debate over who the greatest baseball player ever is. Today I happened to get into the discussion about it during a game with one of my coaches who claimed Alex Rodriguez is the greatest of all time. While I firmly believe he was just speaking from the perspective of a lost Yankee Fan, I can tell you one thing: the greatest baseball player I ever saw was caught up in steroid allegations as well.
I have made the argument before that Barry Bonds was the best baseball player to ever take the field. I have made this argument predominantly because I got to witness his greatness first hand. My dad always told me the G.O.A.T. was Babe Ruth but I never decided to waste my time looking up numbers from the 1930’s. Not until today did I waste my time doing so.
What got this all started was a tweet I saw earlier from Sirius Radio’s Craig Mish which claimed Bonds had beat current Marlins players (including Giancarlo Stanton) in a batting practice Home Run Derby at the age of 51. That got me thinking on so many levels about how tainted his name has become. What a shame it is to see someone blessed with THAT TALENT taken for granted by the baseball loving world because of a mistake he made.
One of my favorite home run memories was seeing #756 blasted into the San Francisco night as a New York Mets Fan (incredibly random because the Giants were playing Washington) came up with the baseball. And yet, about a decade later, it’s like Bonds never had a career. Vilified by the media and banished by the Hall of Fame, Bonds’ name will never be held where it really belongs. Our children and their children will forever associate Barry Bonds with one word: “cheater”. In my eyes he doesn’t deserve this, but I do understand my perspective can be drastically different from others.
Now, before you decide to stop reading this article or assume I believe he didn’t take steroids you need to hear me out. When it comes to making the point that Barry Bonds was the greatest of all time there are two parts to my argument. The first part of my argument must enable you to make peace with the use of performance enhancing drugs because I believe Bonds to be the most statistically sound candidate regardless of what he put into his body. Then, after I attempt to sway you to the other side of what Barry Bonds was dealing with, I will analyze the numbers.
Okay here we go…The History of Drugs in Baseball..
I hate to break it to you but the players in the “steroid era” were not the first professional baseball players to take performance enhancing drugs. Players before the steroid era would pop amphetamines and anything they could get their hands on to try to gain an advantage. The first known use of a performing enhancing drugs in baseball took place in 1889. In the book The Baseball Hall of Shame’s Warped Record Book, by Bruce Nash, Bob Smith, and others, it includes an account of Babe Ruth administering an injection of extracted Sheep Testicles in order to gain a competitive advantage (this actually led to Ruth getting sick and not playing the game that day). You can bet the house confidently that some of the greats were popping pills before the league realized these drugs existed.
Amphetamines didn’t come around until World War II when they were supplied to our troops. When these troops came home they noticed benefits in using these drugs during athletic events. In Hank Aaron’s autobiography, I Had a Hammer, he admitted to accepting an amphetamine pill from a teammate and taking it before a game after slipping into a slump. Furthermore, we all remember the race to beat Babe Ruth’s 60 Home Run Season. The race was between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Writer Zev Chafets wrote that the reason Mantle faded so quickly towards the end of the 1961 season was due to a failed injection that included steroids, amphetamines, and other substances.
It has always been about getting an edge with athletes. Going undetected like so many players have done was common. I want to be clear: I BELIEVE ANY ATHLETE IN BONDS’ SHOES WOULD HAVE TAKEN STEROIDS. He is a product of the time he played in.
I’m going to put you in a situation.
You are Barry Lamar Bonds. The year is 1998. You have worked your absolute butt off for the last 12 years dedicating everything you have to the game of Baseball. Baseball defines you, it defined your father, and it ultimately has defined everything you have worked for. You have grinded out the entire year and hit 37 Home Runs while driving in 122 runs.
In that same year you were working your tail off, you had to ride the back seat watching Mark McGwire break an MLB record, hitting 70 Home Runs! He drove in 147 runs and stole every bit of thunder you worked for. That same year, Sammy Sosa hit 66 Home Runs while collecting 158 RBI’s. Here’s the problem, you are BARRY BONDS. You are watching players with HALF your talent and hand-eye coordination sign contracts you haven’t dreamed of signing.
So then comes decision time. Sosa and McGwire are on steroids. You know it, the whole league knows it, and yet nobody seems to care because the league is making money and players are breaking records. Do you decide to take steroids? I certainly do.
Here is another situation…
Imagine you hire an SAT tutor for 6 months to get into the best college possible. You grind everyday, miss sporting events, social events, hell you even miss your friend Johnny’s birthday party at Chuck E Cheese’s. You get into Skidmore College. Decent school, well respected; but Johnny got into Harvard. Johnny is accepting awards from your high school and winning scholarship money. But what if you become aware that Johnny had his tutor take the SAT for him. Johnny’s parents even know the tutor took the test, but who cares? He already got into Harvard. Do you decide to have that tutor take your SAT if you won’t get caught? Keep in mind that NOBODY HAS EVER GOTTEN CAUGHT.
Sorry Mom, I’m going to Harvard.
Look at this situation through the eyes of Barry Bonds. He was an ego-maniac who wasn’t getting the recognition of others who were juicing. This would drive any athlete crazy. If someone walked up to me and told me, “take this and you will break the home run record, make millions of dollars, and nobody will ever find out you took it because they don’t test for it,” you can bet your ass I’m going to take it 10/1o times, and so would any athlete. It pisses me off how people discard his entire career for that decision to take PEDS while so many others would have done exactly what Bonds did. If he played in Ruth’s time he would have taken the same sheep testicle injection with a little bit of horse juice. Those people who discredit him have obviously never been in his situation. But thats just how it ended up working out for Bonds because of the MLB’s sudden implementation of drug control.
Now that I have voiced myself regarding PED’s and the MLB, let’s take a look at the numbers to see If I had any kind of point by stating Bonds was the greatest of all-time.
ESPN released a top 100 ranking Bonds third on their all time greatest players list but I believe the stats should bump him to #1. He was ranked behind Willie Mays (#2) and Babe Ruth (#1 on multiple lists). I also threw in Alex Rodriguez just for fun. Here are their career statistics below.
People want to believe Baseball is a team sport but it really isn’t. It’s incredibly individual, which means you do not need to possess chemistry with the hitter behind you in order to succeed. This is why you will always be judged purely on statistics.
There are several misconceptions when it comes to analyzing baseball statistics, the first being batting average. How can I make a case for a guy who hit .298 career while not reaching 3000 hits to be the greatest of all time? But people often let batting average carry far too much weight. Batting averages do not account for extra base hits, walks, or even productive at bats where runs can be driven in or scored. Hits don’t win Baseball Games. Runs do. When it comes to being “valuable,” the basis of that argument must rely on four statistics: on base percentage (OBP), wins above replacement (WAR), runs scored (R), and runs batted in (RBI). It is important to note that when it comes to runs scored and runs batted in, there are more variables because teammates performance will effect your personal statistics.
So why do I think Barry Bonds is the greatest of all time?
First Argument: Because HE GOT ON BASE (Go watch Moneyball now if you don’t get the reference).
Getting on base is controlled purely by the hitter and how he is pitched. I believe it to be one of the most valuable statistics in evaluating baseball players. Bonds’ career on base percentage is .444, that ranks sixth all time and slightly below Babe Ruth’s .474 (Willie Mays isn’t even in the top 100 for OBP; Rodriguez is even lower than Mays). However my point here relies on “dominance”. If we take a look at their best seasons over the course of their careers, Bonds flat out dominated the league posting the first and second (.609, and .582) highest season OBP’s seen to date. Bonds is the only player in MLB history who got on base over 60% of the time he stepped in the batters box for an entire season. This is absolutely mind blowing to me.
Fun Fact: Joey Votto has the highest On Base Percentage career wise of any active player (18th All-Time and .0008 behind Mickey Mantle). I didn’t know that before checking these numbers out.
Second Argument: They didn’t even pitch to Bonds.
Bonds was so dominant that pitchers would rather give him first base than pitch to him. He broke every record for base on balls that existed. He walked 2,558 times, that is more than anyone in Major League Baseball history. Henderson was second and Ruth was third who walked almost 500 less times than Bonds. When it comes to single season leaders Bonds is first, second, and third. He walked an MLB high 232 times in one season. Can you begin to imagine the numbers he would have put up if pitchers decided to pitch to him?
Fun Fact: In 1998 against the Arizona Diamondbacks with two outs in the top of the 9th, Barry Bonds became the only player in MLB history to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded. This brought the tying run to third base and the winning run into scoring position. The next hitter lined out to right to end the game.
Third Argument: Run Production.
We all know Bonds has the all time home run record with 762. That is 762 times Bonds produced runs on his own. This goes along with the single season record with 73 home runs in one season. Bonds also produced 2227 runs in his career. That ranks third all-time behind Ty Cobb and Ricky Henderson. However, Ruth has the edge in RBI’s, ranking second all-time where Bonds ranks fifth. Bonds does rank fourth all time in total bases with 5976 bases where Ruth ranks sixth with 5793. One of Bonds’ most impressive statistics is actually his stolen bases. He is 33rd all time with 514 of them. This number is absolutely outstanding- no other player in the conversation for being the greatest of all-time has nearly as many stolen bases.
Fun Fact: Barry Bonds home run against closer Troy Percival in the World Series in 2002 was estimated to have traveled over 485 feet. Go YouTube it if you haven’t seen it. You know what? Here it is…go to 4:00 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDDcJndvvQ0
BOTTOM LINE: The argument for greatest baseball player of all-time is a race between Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth
Regardless of Bonds taking steroids, Ruth still has some slight edges statistically. Going back and checking the numbers really helped me in understanding just how great Ruth was. Ruth’s career slugging % is the greatest of all time at .689. However, the most significant stat might very well be wins above replacement (WAR). Ruth has the all-time highest WAR (183.6) in MLB history while Bonds has a WAR of 162.4 and Mays has a WAR of 156.2. Moreover, the least productive thing you can do in baseball is strikeout. Ruth struck out 209 less times than Barry Bonds with 1,449 LESS AT BATS. Ruth also has the career edge in runs batted in with 2214 (Bonds had 1996).
Another point that needs to be made is NOBODY CAME CLOSE TO SMELLING RUTH’S JOCK STRAP IN HIS ERA. You must consider how good a player was compared to other players in that time frame; this is where you can make a legitimate argument for Ruth. In the year Ruth hit 60 home runs, the next highest was Gehrig with 47 and after that was some guy named Lazzeri with 18! In 1926, Babe Ruth led the league with 47 home runs while he next highest player was Hack Wilson, who only had 21 Homers. Clearly, Ruth was so far ahead of everyone he played with and against. Although Barry Bonds was the greatest player I saw with my own eyes, he will probably never be able to take down the GREAT BAMBINO at #1. -@JoshBrownie7