The major leagues are on the precipice of a promising postseason, with the magical Mariners trying to continue writing history while history itself (the Braves and Yankees) opposes them. The regular season wrapped up this weekend featuring some of the greatest stories the game has seen. Cal’s, Gwynn’s and Rickey’s legacies are at the height of their idolatry. Oh yes, and Barry Bonds — not Mark McGwire — is the owner of the single-season home-run record.
Barry broke McGwire’s mark with his 71st and 72nd shots Friday night, then officially set the new record with his 73rd as the season ended Sunday.
Baseball, probably more than any other sport, is driven by statistics. So much emphasis is placed on player averages or a season’s aggregate totals that these numbers are too often embraced as emblems for their authors or the game itself.
So 73 is now the cherished figure, the most beloved of all baseball statistics. And Bonds holds it, alone.
There is a problem with ascribing to a specific number such importance, because the emotional attachment to those digits is less fragile than the record itself. Perhaps that will change. Perhaps if sluggers continue to push the limits, year after year, America will be numbed to the statistical flux. But for now, there are those that think McGwire’s record should have stayed McGwire’s.
Despite the sentimental sugar-sweetness of sacrosanctity, they are wrong. Bonds is an infinitely better player to hold the home-run scepter for the game of baseball.
Three years ago, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris’ mark together, both sluggers were urged on by popular sentiment. McGwire was the brute hero launching 525-foot jobs high above Busch Stadium whereas Sosa was the cute grinning underdog smacking balls onto Waveland Avenue. Each pushed the other, and both probably deserve credit for the degree by which the record was shattered.
But when McGwire finished four ahead of Sammy, he was transformed into baseball’s Ambassador of the Game. Sosa — well, he just became Ambassador of the Dominican Republic.
It was wrong at the time, and remained so until Bonds made McGwire’s short reign atop the all-time charts a mere asterisk on the baseball timeline.
McGwire represented baseball? What were we thinking? Maybe all the snapshots of him hugging his son at home plate or bantering with Sosa at first let us forget that McGwire is nothing but a mediocre slugger, with a freakish talent for crushing balls into the stratosphere, who peaked at just the right time.
At a time in its evolution where Major League Baseball has been boiled down to video replays of home runs and strikeouts by nightly recap shows, the last thing it needs is an emblem who fails to embody any of the game’s finer points.
By all accounts, Barry has been easily the better player than McGwire during each of their careers. Just looking at his production at the plate, Bonds is a career .291 hitter compared with Big Mac’s .263, with a higher on-base percentage (.418 to .394) and far more hits (2311 to 1626) and RBIs (1541 to 1414).
In his record season, the red-haired machine hit .299 with an ungodly 7.3 at-bats per homer. But Bonds outperformed him this year by batting .326 and hitting homers at 6.2 AB/HR clip.
The differences in their games go much further. Bonds is an 11-time gold glover at left field. McGwire plays first, a position generally reserved for either the slowest or tallest member of the team. Then there are the steals. Barry is arguably the best base-stealer ever for his size, with twice as many homers as anyone above him on the all-time steals list. He will soon become the only player in the 500-500 club, improving on his status as the only player in the 400-400 club. Furthermore, in exactly as many major-league seasons, McGwire has one-twelfth the number of triples as Bonds.
But shouldn’t the home run record belong to a home run hitter? Ignoring the fact that Bonds is only 16 career shots behind McGwire and will certainly end his career with more (McGwire is mulling retirement after batting just .188 this season), the answer is still, “No.”
There is nothing better for the institution of baseball than for the holder of its most endeared mark to represent all the virtues of the game which are so imperceptible in the record’s simplicity.