Barry Bonds is making a mockery of my earlier prediction that he’d hit homer No. 756 in the first week of September. He’ll probably hit it weeks earlier.
Bonds is a marvel. At an age — 42, approaching 43 — when even the best athletes are slowing down, he’s hitting home runs at a pace equal to his best seasons. And they aren’t cheapies. I witnessed one of them Saturday, a mammoth blast to deadcenter that landed 30 feet beyond the fence.
Bonds’ many detractors claim that his feats are due to performance-enhancing drugs, and it’s probably true that whatever he’s taking has helped him extend his career.
But to claim that "the playing field isn’t level," to use the cliché in vogue these days, is ridiculous. It’s common knowledge in the baseball world that the use of steroids and human growth hormone is widespread. Do you think it’s a coincidence that there have been so many young pitchers throwing fastballs in the high 90s in recent years? Or that there have been so many injury breakdowns among these power pitchers?
So, if both the pitcher and the hitter are getting boosts from what they’re taking, who has the advantage?
Ironically, the man he’s chasing, Hank Aaron, had two distinct advantages in his career, because of circumstances beyond his control.
At the time they played, Willie Mays was considered the better power hitter.
Aaron never hit more than 47 homers in a season, but Mays had seasons with 52 and 51 and another year in which he hit 49 home runs.
But Aaron didn’t serve in the military, which cost Mays most of two full seasons, so he had more than 1,500 more at-bats than Mays in his career. He also played a significant part of his career in an Atlanta park nicknamed "The Launching Pad," while Mays was battling the Candlestick Park winds. The result: Aaron finished with 755 home runs, Mays 660.
Like godfather Mays, Bonds has had his biggest home run years despite the park in which he plays. AT&T Park penalizes left-handed power hitters who do not pull the ball sharply because the wall falls away quickly to 421 feet in right-center. Bonds renders that moot by hitting the ball 450 feet. Since the park opened, there have been 55 splash hits (home runs into McCovey Cove). Bonds has 33 of them.
Bonds is not quite the all-round player Mays was — Willie was a better fielder and baserunner — but Barry is easily the best hitter I’ve seen in the 50 seasons I’ve been writing about major-league games in San Francisco.
He works very hard at it, with strenuous offseason workouts and a restrictive diet. He studies pitchers and even occasionally sits in on meetings of the Giants’ pitchers to see how pitchers think. For 30 minutes before a game, he will visualize what can happen.
He attends to even minor details. The Giants have a pitching machine in a room behind their dugout at home. Bonds will set that machine to throw left-handed and take a few swings around the seventh inning, knowing he’ll probably face a left-handed reliever soon.
He also has a great sense of drama, and he’ll want to break Aaron’s record at home. So, my revised prediction: Look for it during the weeklong homestand July 23-29.