Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 31, 2001
BASEBALL: Hating Barry Bonds, Scoring Rey Ordonez and the 1962 MVP Race
Originally posted on Projo.com
Happiness is a 3-game series at Shea Stadium where even Rey Ordonez gets a game-winning hit and Barry Bonds doesn't homer. But then Bonds has to go and spoil it in the fourth game . . .
Sports is entertainment, and entertainment needs good guys, heroes. But it also helps to have villains. And Barry Bonds, like John Rocker, hasn't just blundered into the villain role; he's embraced it so thoroughly it might as well have been scripted for him by the WWF.
Bonds' improbable late-career assault on the home run record -- a record he never challenged until Mark McGwire raised the bar -- has provoked a new round of that all-American sport, Barry Bonds hating. Rick Reilly of SI, who never met a moral high horse he didn't mount, led the way with a series of Jeff Kent quotes slamming Bonds as a selfish, me-first guy who surrounds himself with a staff of acolytes and won't give his teammates the time of day, let alone a seat in his comfy chair and a gander at his big screen TV. (Never mind that Kent has never been well-liked anywhere he's played, and that none of his teammates is exactly hard up for cash to buy a recliner and a TV at home). Bob Klapisch piled on with innuendo that Bonds uses steroids and/or corks his bat -- fair enough charges if Klapisch has a good faith basis for levelling them, but he wouldn't phrase them the way he does if he did. Klapisch should think back to when Bobby Bonilla called him names one time, and remember that this is not always a great strategy. As much fun as we have maligning Bonds, a little fairness and objectivity wouldn't be a bad thing, for the sake of the readers, if not the man himself.
Bonds' defenders, such as they are, usually argue that Bonds-hating is (1) an irrational phenomenon stoked by reporters who malign any player who's not nice to reporters, (2) driven by people who don't understand the stats and therefore assume that Bonds isn't as good a player as, say, Tony Gwynn, (3) an unfair penalty for his failures, and his teams' failures, in the postseason, or (4) racist. I don't buy any of this, either. First of all, it's not just the media that dislikes the guy; he's feuded with too many teammates for that, and a lot of fans disliked the guy even when he was a young player in a city with few reporters. Second, you can find plenty of sophisticated people who appreciate Bonds' accomplishments but still don't like him. I voted for the guy for the All-Century team myself, and I still can't stand him. Third, there's something to that, but to a lot of the critics, Bonds' failures in October (like his low RBI counts before 1990) have always been more of a club to beat him with than a reason for getting on his back, the same as it was with Michael Jordan in the 80s. And on the race thing, it may be true that the fact that Bonds is black has made it harder for white fans and media to reach out to bridge the gulf he has created -- but who created it in the first place? Most of the people who hate Barry Bonds also hate Roger Clemens, and for most of the same reasons, and they don't get any whiter than Roger Clemens. They're two of a kind, except that Bonds never had a year when he wasn't in shape and played badly. The race argument might carry some weight with, say, Gary Sheffield, but not Bonds; there's just too much history there to say he's just misunderstood.
Bonds has never given any of us -- fans, the press, teammates, anybody -- any reason not to hate the guy. It's not just the aloofness; Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were aloof, too. And it's not just the high opinion of himself, either; this is America, after all, and most people are pretty forgiving of big egos if you can back it up. The great ones always have that confidence. Part of it is a combination of the two, but there's always more, what comes out one way or another as a determination to antagonize people. Personally I can't even remember all the details of why I loathe Barry Bonds and root against him under all circumstances, but I can tell you it goes back to the late 1980s and a series of pot shots Bonds took at the Mets (particularly Dwight Gooden), just as Rocker and Chipper Jones did in later years. Bonds doesn't shoot his mouth off like that anymore, but the bad odor of those days lingers.
We can all play armchair psychiatrist, which is also unfair but it's fun . . . what I wonder is if Bonds' apparent complete disinterest in connecting with the fans, teammates, media, etc. isn't in part a reaction to his father's experience. You will recall that, like Bobo Newsom in the 1930s, Bobby Bonds was, by the time Barry was an impressionable teenager, synonymous with the well-traveled, oft-traded player. (How quaint it seems today to think of guys who get traded every year as an unusual phenomenon; these days we have guys like Mike Morgan, who makes Odysseus look like a stay-at-home). He was also, as I recall, the focus of various controversies (now largely forgotten) on a series of fractious teams, including Steinbrenner's Yankees (before they'd won anything) and the Garry Templeton/Ted Simmons/George Hendrick Cardinals, one of the all time bad-chemistry teams. Somewhere along the line, Barry must have picked up the ideas that (1) lots of people get by in baseball without getting along, and (2) it's not a good idea to get too attached to one team or one city or the people in them, because you never know where you'll be next year.
What's a shame is that, from all reports, Bonds isn't such a bad guy away from the game -- he's never been in any kind of trouble. Baseball Weekly did a very sympathetic profile a few years ago on him as a family man, a religious man. And he's a guy who works hard at his craft and has never had a serious off year. But he's just too happy to play the villain.
Where will Bonds be next season? The Yankees are rumored to be interested, and part of me would like to see Bonds a Yankee, since he would slide perfectly into the Reggie/Rickey role and he and Clemens are such a perfectly matched set. Bonds' father went to the Bronx as his next stop after San Francisco. On the other hand, he's still that good, and would put the Yankees in the drivers' seat for a few more years.
There's also been talk about the Mets, and some Mets (including Piazza) have leaped with uncharacteristic energy to Bonds' defense. Now, it might be a rational decision to sign Bonds, good as he is right now, and bad as the Mets' outfield is. But just watch: if they offer him anywhere near the $20-25 million per year range, it will prove they were wrong last winter, when they could have signed Alex Rodriguez for that. Unless, of course, you believed all of Steve Phillips' malarkey about not wanting to sign A-Rod because it would disrupt the team concept. After all, Barry Bonds is the ultimate team player, isn't he?
A good organization can admit error, of course, but signing Bonds -- even if it makes sense -- is clearly not as good an idea as signing A-Rod would have been. Bonds will be four years older next season than A-Rod will be at the end of his 10-year contract with Texas (at which point maybe the Mets will talk to him). And even putting aside age, it's a lot easier to find good hitters -- not Bonds, but useful bats -- in left field than shorstop. Meanwhile, the Mets continue to employ arguably the worst hitting everyday player in the history of baseball at short (well, he's not really in Bill Bergen's league, but who else is even close?).
How bad is Rey Ordonez? The Baseball Almanac credits Leo Cardenas with the fewest runs scored in a full season, just 25 in nearly 600 plate appearances in 1972. (Cardenas never played every day again). The NL record listed is 32, for Mickey Doolan in 1913. (POSTSCRIPT ADDED JULY 2003: Cardenas still holds the record for fewest runs by a player with 450 or more at bats in a season; click here for the list of players with 450 or more at bats and 32 or fewer runs scored). Now, I'm not sure what the definition of "full season" is, but through Wednesday's action Ordonez had appeared in 122 of the Mets' 133 games, almost all as a starter, and was on pace to fall about 10 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title. How many runs had he scored?
19. And that's with a hot streak, scoring 4 times in the Mets' last 4 games. A pace for 23, a new major league record for un-productivity if he gets enough playing time to "qualify" for it. (Rodriguez, albeit batting higher in the order, is tied for the major league lead with 113 runs scored, is third in the AL in RBI with 114, and leads the AL in total bases by a wide margin).
But remember one thing. The average AL team in 1972, the year Cardenas set the record, scored just 3.47 runs per game. The average NL team in 1913, when Doolan played, scored just 4.15 runs per game. The NL has seen the average go as low as 3.33 per game, in 1908. This year, in which Rey Ordonez may set a new standard for light-hitting regulars, the average NL team is scoring 4.76 runs per game. Runs are plenty easy to come by. Just not if you employ Rey Ordonez.
One final question: is it possible that Ichiro will win an MVP award this season, and Bonds won't? Particularly since Bonds is approaching the point Rogers Hornsby reached in the 1920s, where the National League abolished the MVP award in part because nobody wanted to keep giving awards to Hornsby.
Anything's possible. Consider, just as one example, the 1962 NL MVP race, listed in order of the balloting:
(I left out Don Drysdale, who won 25 games and finished 5th in the balloting). One of these things is not like the others . . . What game were these guys watching? I mean, I know Wills was a shortstop and a pretty good one, and in a close call we have to give a little latitude to the MVP voters who watched them play, but ignoring a gap of 30-40 homers and nearly 100 RBI? Frank Robinson (whose team won 98 games) got totally screwed; Robinson even scored more runs than Wills and got on base a lot more, and nobody ever played the game harder than Frank Robinson. Mays could have won the award too, since he was a comparable hitter, his team won the pennant race at the wire, and he played center field like, well, like Willie Mays. I wonder how many writers, if you asked them today, would admit thinking that Maury Wills was more valuable than Willie Mays or Frank Robinson or Henry Aaron in their primes.