Monday, May 28, 2007

On Bonds

Giants ballclub logo

It makes a wicked sort of sense to walk Barry Bonds.

The manager managing his team in the field against Bonds feels keenly enough the press of the lore of best play against his judgement of what to do when Bonds takes his turn at the plate: the lore is firm on this; the manager must not give a free base to the first guy up in the late innings of a close game. Don't let the batter reach base; make an out of his appearance at the plate. But late in the game the solid sense of that tactical injunction evaporates before Bonds at bat.

Late in a tie game every out has its vested place on the gradient leading up to the all-important final out. The first out in the 7th inning of a tie game is important, the second out in the 8th inning is very important, the final out, whenever it comes, the tie finally broken, is all-important. The final out gives a chance for the game to end, which otherwise might go on and on inconclusively forever should the tie continue inning after extra inning after extra inning as provided for in the rules of baseball, giving no small importance to each out recorded in those late late innings of the extra inning game to any of the remaining crowd that's hung around to see if that game-ending out will ever come. Managers in the National League have uniformly decided that its simply not worth trying to get that out, wherever it lies along that late inning close game gradient, from Barry Bonds.

One manager had his pitcher, late in a close game, send Bonds down to first base with the bases loaded, an almost inconcievable breach of common practice in baseball, granting the Giants a free run in that instance rather than allowing the decisive swipe of the bat of Bonds. The managers of the National League, in unspoken concert, changed the way the game is played when confronted with Bonds, who took a base on balls 230-some times one year at their insistence, a rate of almost three bases on balls for every two games played for the season. As much as possible the managers would not let him hit, willing to unleash on the game whatever mischief another baserunner might do rather than see him swing at a pitch.

Bonds at the plate has been exceptional, so exceptional that an exception to the known practices of baseball has been concieved and enforced just for him, contrary to the all the settled lore of baseball unequivocally reminding a manager that letting the other team have a baserunner is bad business, especially late in a close game, leading off the 7th or late in the 8th inning, say, with the score tied, and the probability of successfully getting even the best hitter out, based on all the evidence, is in the neighborhood of 70%, fair enough chances even for the prudent manager when who knows what will happen with another runner scampering around out there on the bases? So with bases empty you take your chances with the out, mm? And, yes, on the other hand with bases full and no outs, intentionally allowing the runner at third to advance while completing the double play, hastening the end of the inning at the cost of one run is ruefully acknowledged to be what's left of best practice under those circumstances. Outs are that important.

Oh, and at times, under the press of circumstances, when the manager's best hope is the admittedly wan hope that only a force play might revive the flagging chances of getting the three outs desperately needed to end the inning, then yes, especially with one out already in hand, an intentional base on balls, putting the force play in order and opening up the possibility of a double play, is a plausible enough gambit. Intentionally walking a batter to load the bases, putting the force play in order at every base, is the extreme expression of this gambit. Bonds has been walked under these circumstances, as have so many other players when the galling necessity of the gambit presents itself to the manager of the other squad in the course of the game. But Bonds is walked when other players would never be.

That one time, Bonds was intentionally walked with the bases loaded, with the force play already in effect at every base, the Arizona manager conceding on that occasion not only the run waiting at third base but the ruin Bonds would make of any hoped for double play if left to bat. Confronted by Bonds, the manager of the Arizona club abandoned what wan hope is ever offered when the force play is in effect at every base, and instead kept the bases loaded, gave up a run, collected no outs at all, and considered his team the better off for it for not letting Bonds have at the ball.

Bonds has been sent to first with a runner at third and no outs, contrary to settled practice. He's been sent to first with a runners at first and second, moving the extra runner into scoring position. He's been sent to first leading off late innings of close games, as mentioned, and sent to first late in tie games when any runner is a risk.

The wary manager grants Bonds first base knowing the probability of getting him out if he's pitched to is better than even, in hailing distance of 70% in fact. That chance is always worth seriously considering when facing some other batter, but not Bonds. In looking at all the evidence, the manager is confronted with the devastating other 30% of the time when Bonds has beat the ball with his bat. And that is enough. The manager foreswears such devastation, elects to have his pitcher send Bonds down to first instead. No other player I can recall has ever been treated in quite this way, with a blanket injunction against any pitcher in any case giving Bonds anything at all to hit under any circumstances if at all possible. In his time, the Giants own Willie McCovey was justifiably feared for what he might do with his bat, and managers were so disinclined to let him hit that for years he held the season record in the National League for being given the most intentional bases on balls, drawing 45 in 1969. In 2003, Barry Bonds totaled 120 intentional bases on balls.

Some people might be confused about how fair this is, not letting Bonds hit the ball, when that's what he's for, as if the still-living form of Bob Dylan were rushed out on stage and then not allowed to sing (producing for other reasons its own contrasting reactions of relief and chagrin on the part of those looking in, no doubt). But what's fair is a term of art in baseball, and what's fair never precludes the winning strategy, which over time has come to include in the rubric of the game "Don't Let Bonds Bat. Just Don't" as a unique, universally adopted codicil to otherwise settled matters of standard practice in baseball.

Sometimes, the manager concedes, Bonds must be pitched to. I've seen him bat a few hundred times over the years at games I've attended, and, yes, just as all those managers of opposing teams suspect for all the reasons, Bonds for years has been peerless at bat, just devastatingly acute with the delivered swipe of his stick to the detriment of the pitched ball when finally honestly offered. Once or twice during a game a pitcher might serve up such a ball among the vast majority of otherwise directed pitches tending to make Bonds have his base on balls instead, and suffer as a result all the negative consequences of trying to throw both a strike and a pitch he couldn't hit with the selfsame ball, leading in time directly to the other idea of not pitching to him at all, and as a fallback, should pitching to him prove unavoidable, to stack the side of the field where he'll most likely pound the thing with as many extra players as might be spared to chase the ball down. The standard array of defensive positions out there in the field was discarded in favor of one designed just for him, in case it came down to it and he did have a hack at the ball.

He probably wouldn't have hit 100 home runs that one year he was walked 234 times, but, who knows? What's true is that managers who sent their teams against him that year managed those games as if he might.


For all of that, Barry Bonds has a curious celebrity. I've never met the fellow, and I have no evidence to contribute to the ongoing investigation into his alleged drug use that's getting all the press these days.

But because he is celebrated, San Francisco's own Dark Star, I'm aware of wide reports that he's a convincingly unlikeable sort with a forbidden history of performance enhancement ready to be pinned on him any day now if the feds get their way. Dramatic stuff, that, over and above the matchless baseball I've seen him play.

On the issue of likeability, it's hard for me to judge who'd be the most irritating to the other if Bonds and I were ever to meet. He may have all his great press clippings of rude behaviour going for him, and I in turn only an enraging practiced affability with which to stoke the fires of his irritation in return. I'm not denying Bonds would be the favorite, I'm just saying I own a store of inapt good cheer that's brought many up short over the years. If such a contest is not to be, well, I have small appetite for meeting famously irritating people anyway, or for being all that affable for prolonged periods, either. So I'll leave that question aside.

Barry Bonds made chumps of all the many players using performance enhancing drugs in baseball, all of them who went after that extra edge of muscle mass and reflex speed promised by the potions cooked up here and there in the industry serving America's fitness trade, and none of them going about it so secretly that the manager of a club would have no hint of why the fellow in the dugout with the shoulder muscles reaching all the way up to his ears has that peculiar vein popping away on his forhead. It was not so much a secret that was being kept about the use of the nominally prohibited drugs, as knowledge reserved for the clubhouse, set inside its white chalk circle, as it were, knowledge like who has jock itch or what's that phone number for the hookers which is never honestly addressed outside that space.

Many players, enhanced, managed to reach the major leagues and stay some length of time before they broke. And they did break, because the fitness served up by the concoctions they took was a brittle sort for the purposes of baseball, lending a particular vulnerability to the knee and shoulder and elbow of the otherwise enhanced player. They broke, and were replaced by others seeking in that same way for an edge to get into the major leagues and stay awhile.

I don't believe for a minute that Bonds with his storied self-regard was anything but offended when others, many of them enhanced, were spoken of as the best in baseball after a long while during which only his name was ever seriously mentioned when talk turned that way, agreeing with his own fully considered opinion on the matter I surmise, based on what he had done at bat, on the bases and in the field in his first decade in the major leagues. He stole hundreds and hundred of bases in that time, and he was so matchlessly fast to the ball in the outfield that again and again what might have seemed a sure double from the other team's batter was held to a single by his remarkable fielding. That's what those who gave him those Golden Gloves noticed when they chose him as best left fielder year after year: time after time the batter rounding first base witnessed ahead of him Bonds already throwing the adequate throw back into second, holding the hitter to a single instead of the two bases that had seem so sure off the crack of the bat. Bonds was peerless at that, at denying the extra base to the batter. He had his troubles when a better than adequate throw was required, but commonly he was at the ball and prepared to throw it back so quickly in the event only an adequate throw was needed. Bonds agreed, everyone agreed, he was the best. And even with all of that, he was named MVP for his hitting, not his fielding. Because, Bonds agreed, everyone agreed, he was a peerless hitter besides.

What stuck in the mighty craw of Bonds most sorely, I'm thinking, was all this talk of McGuire and Sosa saving baseball from the doldrums it had difted into follwing the baseball strike in 1994. Oooh, look, the darlings of baseball, and all those home runs! Those two guys were juiced. They were partaking of the conconctions. They had drugs in their systems, for enhancement! The celebration of their corrupted chase after the single season record of Ruth Maris went on and on that whole season with the two of them, McGuire and Sosa, blasting celebrated home run after celebrated home run to the obvious delight of all those paying the least attention, finally and forever and so marvelously laying to rest any question about the greatest number of home runs ever hit in a season. Except for the part about the drugs.

Bonds wasn't forced to demonstrate the truth that on any level playing field, as Bonds agreed, as everyone agreed, he was baseball's best. But he did do that.

Bonds chumped them all. They all enhanced themselves and performed marvels and then broke, but even performing at the utter possible limit of their enhancement he showed they were no match at all, no one was a match at all, for what he, Bonds, already best, could do enhanced.


Fred Marks said... for baseball fans who cannot be silent anymore...check it out, was featured in the Miami Herald 1 day ago...

peter ramus said...

Thanks for the link to, fred marks. I see from the masthead that the scheme of the site is to spread the word that fans should"…WITH PROUDNESS SHOW YOU ARE AGAINST BARRY BONDS BY WEARING BLACK AT UPCOMING BASEBALL GAMES IN WHICH BONDS IS PLAYING."

Exclamation point.

Apparently the plan is to get everybody to wear Giants team colors to shame Barry Bonds. Clever, very clever.