The greatest class of all time? (Part 1)

This is a partial reprint of an article that appeared in the 2009 Hardball Times Baseball Annual. It is being published here with permission of the author.

The 2013 THT Baseball Annual is now available.

The Intro

The word “steroids” will not appear in the rest of this story. Nor will the letters “HGH” or the phrase “performance-enhancing drugs.” There will be no clear and no cream, not in drug form anyway, no further mention of BALCO or former trainers in jail or former trainers testifying in Congress or, really, any former trainers at all. There will be no mention of injections, no statistics designed to cast suspicion based on odd aging patterns and no theories offered on where the blame should fall. Not here.

None of these things will be mentioned here because, I suspect, you may have read an article or two about all that. I suspect you already know that the out-of-whack power numbers of what we like to call the Meso-Selig Era (or simply the Age of Bud) may not have been entirely natural. I suspect that you may be tired of hearing about all that or, at the very least, could use a break. I sure could. That’s why I’m writing this.

Trouble is, I also suspect that when you run across the names Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in just a few paragraphs, you will be hit by a wave of emotion, something from the gut, something about them as people and as sportsmen and as wonders of chemistry. I suspect it will be weird to see their names and read a bit about their accomplishments and not get a single word about the charges and counter-charges and suspicions that have hounded them and branded them as athletes and men. It seems a bit like writing a story about Darth Vader and failing to mention the whole “he turned to the dark side” thing.

But, for a few minutes, I would ask you to forget all that. This is a story about what Hall of Fame Induction Day 2013 might have been, had it not been for all those things I promised not to mention. If everything was a little different, Induction Day 2013 might have been the most amazing crossroads in baseball history.

Obviously, the first class was the best and most famous Hall of Fame class ever. There have been other good ones—the 1947 class with Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch and Carl Hubbell was awfully good. The 1966 class had Ted Williams and Casey Stengel. The 1972 class had Yogi Berra and Sandy Koufax and also Negro Leagues stars Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson; that could very well be the best class since the first.

In 1982, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were inducted together. In 1989 it was Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski. In 1999 George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount and Orlando Cepeda all went in on the same hot weekend.

None of those really push the first class. Let’s face it: In 1936, you have perhaps the greatest hitter and most intense competitor (Cobb), perhaps the most overwhelming force (Ruth), perhaps the most complete player (Wagner), perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever lived (Walter Johnson) and—one more perhaps—perhaps the most respected gentleman to ever play the game (Mathewson). That seems an impossible group to beat.

But—close your eyes, imagine that some of the bad news of the past 10 years never happened—the Class of 2013 might be even more spectacular.

First Inductee: Barry Bonds

I know I promised not to mention anything about, well, you know. But I do wonder sometimes if Barry Bonds’ story would have played out a little bit differently had he been a center fielder his whole career. You probably know that Bonds played center field his entire rookie season in Pittsburgh. His arm was a touch weak for the position, but he obviously had the speed and the instincts to be an outstanding center fielder. The next year, though, the Pirates traded Tony Pena to St. Louis for a package that included Andy Van Slyke. Bonds slid over to left so that Van Slyke could play center field.

And Bonds was, of course, an excellent defensive left fielder—he is probably acknowledged as the best defensive left fielder ever, for whatever that is worth. He won eight Gold Gloves as a left fielder, which is more or less like winning the Olympic 100-meter butterfly eight times against the current.*

*It’s worth saying here that we have passed the point of absurdity when it comes to the Gold Gloves. I’m not talking here about the many flaws of the award itself—like the managers’ and coaches’ insistence on giving Derek Jeter three Gold Gloves, the obvious importance of offense in the Gold Glove voting and so on. No, I mean, specifically, that it is absurd the Gold Glove voters continue to treat all outfielders the same. Everyone in baseball knows that playing left field is wildly different from play center field, and playing center is night and day to playing right. And yet, when it comes to the Gold Glove voting, they throw all of them into the same pool.

If the Gold Glove rules had decided to give four Gold Gloves to the four best infielders instead of breaking them up by position, you would imagine that no first baseman would ever win an award. That’s how it is with left fielders now. The Gold Glove voters will often pick three center fielders which is what they should do based on the current rules—but the current rules are ridiculous. Break ‘em up.

What would have happened had Bonds stayed in center? I suspect that—even though his personality hardly made friends and influenced people—he would have received more respect during the early part of his career. Take a look at this comparison between two sons of excellent players, Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds, from 1990 to 1998.

{exp:list_maker}Griffey: .304/.384/.582 with 271 doubles, 27 triples, 334 homers, 957 RBIs, 879 runs, 127 stolen bases, nine gold gloves.
Bonds: .305/.438/.600 with 279 doubles, 40 triples, 327 homers, 993 RBIs, 1,000 runs, 328 stolen bases, eight Gold Gloves. {/exp:list_maker}
It’s pretty clear: Griffey was great, but Bonds was better in almost every way. He got on base a lot more and, as such, scored many more runs. He stole 200 more bases. He even had a better slugging percentage. The year-by-year Win Shares numbers—which take into account defense, of course—are even more stark:
{exp:list_maker}1990: Bonds wins 37-24
1991: Bonds wins 37-30
1992: Bonds wins 41-25
1993: Bonds wins 47-29
1994: Bonds wins 25-20
1995: Bonds wins 36-9
1996: Bonds wins 39-28
1997: Tied 36 win shares apiece
1998: Bonds wins 34-29. {/exp:list_maker}
This has been brought up many times—Bonds was pretty clearly the superior player, and yet Griffey was pretty commonly considered the best player in baseball at the time. The conventional reasoning for this is that Griffey was just so much easier to like—he played with a smile, he tilted with charisma, he did not seem to have disdain for his teammates. These are only perceptions, but they are powerful ones.

Personally, I think the center field thing is at play here. Griffey, of course, played center, and he fit the image we have of the great center fielder, the image of Mays and Mantle and DiMaggio and Snider and the rest. He could chase down fly balls, and he could hit the big home runs. He could make leaping catches at the wall, and he could steal (a few) bases.

The (awful) Fogerty song they play at ballparks everywhere is called “Centerfield.” That’s the place to be. Dale Murphy was a do-everything center fielder in the early-to-mid-1980s, and he won a couple of MVP awards. Fred Lynn showed off that all-around play in ’75 and became the first rookie to win the MVP award. Eric Davis, Kirby Puckett, Amos Otis, Cesar Cedeno, this archetype of the fast and powerful center fielder is firmly in our minds. And Griffey represented it.

Bonds, meanwhile, played left field, and to be honest there had never really been a left fielder quite like him. Left fielders are generally specialists. They are remarkable hitters like Ted Williams or base stealers like Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock or immense sluggers like Frank Howard and George Foster. Bonds, I think, did not quite fit the imagination playing left field. Something was just a little bit off. He may have been a better offensive player than Griffey, but Junior was a center fielder and that made him better.

I will not play amateur psychologist here, but the general thinking seems to be that it was a lack of respect that pushed Bonds to bulk up and after 1998 to put together the greatest flurry of offensive numbers in the history of baseball. If there was a lack of respect, I think a great deal of it came from Bonds playing left field. He put up Willie Mays numbers, but most people refused to see him like Willie Mays. The rest, of course, is in the record books.

Comparison to 1936: Bonds takes on the role of Ruth in this class, of course. The arguments will rage about Ruth vs. Bonds. Ruth played in an era without black or Latin players, with day games, with train travel and without relief specialists. Bonds played in an era with trainers and nutritionists, better equipment, tight strike zones and body armor. There’s no way to compare them, really. All you can do is take one more glance at their most famous seasons and be in awe.

{exp:list_maker}Bonds in 2001: .328/.515/.863, 73 homers, 137 RBIs, 129 runs, 177 walks, 259 OPS+.
Ruth in 1927: .356/.486/.772, 60 homers, 164 RBIs, 158 runs, 137 walks, 226 OPS+. {/exp:list_maker}

And both men had better seasons statistically. Ruth in 1920 had a 256 OPS+ and famously hit more home runs than any team in the league. Bonds in 2004 had a 263 OPS+ and an absurd .609 on-base percentage which is what happens when you are intentionally walked 120 times. Bonds was intentionally walked more times than anyone in the American League actually walked. With nods to Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle and the rest, I think Ruth and Bonds are the two greatest offensive forces in the history of the game.

Next: the second and third inductees.

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9 years ago

What would really be nice is if journalists would, you know, be journalists and be objective and gather all the facts.

Because they are missing some great facts.  A great site has been put together by a well known name in baseball circles and sabermetric circles, Eric Walker, and there he discusses just about any angle that people have used to justify keeping steroid users out of the Hall of Fame in this critical period where players of that ilk are getting huge press regarding their chances.  He pulls up medical research as well as doctor, professor, and other expert opinions and the conclusion is that steroids have not added much, if any, advantage to the players, hitters or pitchers.

If these writers are so set on voting no for Bonds, they owe it to themselves to at least read through all the arguments that Walker has laid out at his websites. 

If they still do not vote for Bonds because of steroids, I think that they will find that they first were wrong on the side of history when they ignored all the signs that steroids was entering the game and did nothing about it, and then they will find that they were on the wrong side of history when they voted against Bonds and Clemens, for while they may have been users, the evidence is that they were taking the modern equivalent of snake oil medicine.  Thus these writers will be disgraced twice journalistically over steroids.

9 years ago

Oh, this was not directed at Joe, who wrote a great article and I really enjoyed it, but at the writers who are using steroids as a reason to not vote for Bonds.

cal guy
9 years ago

Yes, very well thought out and objective article.  It’s a shame that most writers probably do not approach the matter similarly. Unfortunately, I’m sure a good number of voters will withhold votes for Bonds at least for his first year of eligibility just to make a statement, which is what Danny Knobler suggested in a recent article.  So maybe Bonds had a contentious relationship with the press, was not a popular figure amongst the insiders of the sport, and is widely suspected of having used PEDs.  If these writers are going to exact revenge on him by withholding their vote for at least a year and later “relent” and “allow” him in that strikes me as pettiness and shows a lack of professionalism.  As Posnanski clearly shows, Bonds’ career was following a HOF-worthy arc and if PEDs had never even existed Bonds would likely have made the Hall in his first year of eligibility.  Some writers have taken to wearing their voting rights as a badge, acting like the gatekeepers to the Hall of Sainthood.  My message to those writers: “Get off of it… you are SPORTSWRITERS!” How much of the material they produced as sportswriters featured superlatives about Bonds’ performances?  As polarizing a figure as he was, how much did he make sportswriters’ jobs easier by giving no shortage of material to write on?  It’s the Hall of Fame, memorializing the greatest performers in the history of the game.  Any writer who votes to keep Bonds out of the Hall without taking an honest, objective look at his worthiness is not worthy of having a vote.

Bruce Markusen
9 years ago

Bonds had the best four-year stretch of his career during his age 36, 37, 38, and 39 seasons. This was not a one-year fluke, this was a period of four seasons. This runs completely contrary to the aging patterns of major league players, particularly hitters. Who in the world has the peak of his career in his late thirties? Certainly not Alex Rodriguez.

If steroids had no impact on Bonds’ late peak, then how do we explain this? What are the alternate answers to this question? And please don’t tell me that Bonds was just some freak of nature, someone who was just “different” than Ruth, Williams, Mays. I would like to hear something more rational and believable than that.

Dave Cornutt
9 years ago

Bruce has an excellent point, and further, Bonds wasn’t the only one.  If one is to believe that PED use had no effect on the game, then the conclusion is that there were an extraordinary number of “freaks of nature” populating the game in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, far more so than any other period in the game’s history.  The probability of that is so unlikely that we can dismiss it. 

I will acknowledge that Bonds may have been on an HoF trajectory before he started using PEDs.  However, what he did to the game and what he participated in cannot be ignored, regardless of his accomplishments beforehand.  As a fan, I knew at the time that I was witnessing a travesty, and it soured me on the game—so much that I didn’t get interested in baseball again until the last few years.  That period has left a permanent stain, in the form of record books full of asterisks, in the minds of the fans if not in print.  If I were a writer, I would never vote for Bonds or the other likely PED users.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.