On yesterday’s Effectively Wild podcast, hosted by the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com, hosts Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh played an annual game called “What would Barry Bonds hit today?” Bonds is 50 years old, so the numbers weren’t pretty: Miller said .155/.285/.245 and Lindbergh said .200/.320/.350.
Bonds hasn’t played since 2007, of course, which is the subject of the grievance he is bringing against the league, alleging the owners colluded to keep him out of the league the year after he led Major League Baseball with a crazy .480 on-base-percentage and posted a 1.045 OPS to boot. To say that could have played at DH in 2008’s American League is an understatement, and that’s before we consider that he offered to play for the league minimum and give the salary to charity.
It’s fair to say that this sort of circus act might have been too much for some organizations, rightly or wrongly, in 2008. It’s fair to also say that there were any number of teams that could have used him — and it has been said, most notably by SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee. The two obvious ones: the value-happy A’s, the best natural fit and one a handful of miles from Bonds’s home, and the Rays, a team that made the 2008 World Series only to lose while batting Willy Aybar and Cliff Floyd at DH.
If the point needed making any further, the last at-bat of the World Series was a pinch-hit Eric Hinske strikeout.
So why didn’t anyone sign Bonds? That is the big question, especially in light of what happened afterward. In 2008, when Bonds went unsigned, Manny Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers and did the best and only real Bonds impression anyone has done since (except maybe Bryce Harper this season), hitting .396/.489/.743 with L.A. through the end of the year. Ramirez was an instant phenomenon, the empty vessel having become the star of Mannywood.
But three years later and a steroid suspension later, the Rays decided — way too late — to sign the PED-tagged designated hitter, whatever the bad press, having missed on Bonds. Ramirez showed up this time as a truly empty vessel from head to toe (and not just head), had a single in 17 at-bats, got suspended again, and never played another game in Major League Baseball.
His career wasn’t over, of course: he went to Taiwan to get some final, fruitless licks in, the faded superstar flailing away at 30-grade pitches. By that time, nobody cared, especially not with Manny, whose lesser skill (than Bonds, if few others) waned after the PED crisis hit its non-A-Rod peak. Now it’s just Rodriguez that carries the “cheater” mantle, even as other, similarly indicted stars continue to play with reputations intact: David Ortiz and Nelson Cruz are the poster adults for this class of player.
They’re lucky, simply by virtue of timing, just as Ramirez was, to a lesser degree. While fans still care about PEDs in principle, they don’t care in practice. Ramirez’s second and third acts, for the White Sox and Rays, respectively, were the beginning of a tide-turning that’s ended with Cruz as MLB’s home run leader and Ortiz and a surefire Hall of Famer: the great no-longer-giving-a-crap.
The first step in this — from Bonds to Ramirez — was the biggest. The only thing sense I can make of it is that Ramirez, the space cadet, was a non-threat to the institution of baseball, as the owners saw it. As he crumbled he ambled up and flailed away, the titan having crashed to Earth, a planet on which the team owners do not effectively live. Bonds never played in Taiwan and never would have needed to: even the average of the two lowball predictions of Miller and Lindbergh would have him better than today’s Chase Utley or 2011 Manny Ramirez, he of the .059 OPS.
Put even simpler, Bonds’ was, from beginning to end, an all-American story. It might seem un-American to stop the best baseball player in the world from playing baseball, but I can think of nothing more American than a bunch of rich dudes screwing somebody over simply because they could, and because their feelings were hurt. Out of sight, like Ramirez, out of mind, but Bonds refused to get out of sight. If he was allowed to play, Bonds might only be hitting Ramirez territory now. But, of course, he’d still be hitting.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports Images