Seems there’s a nasty streak of American cynicism that wreaks havoc on contemporary heroes. Take the moon landing on July 20, 1969. Polls show that between a quarter and third of American adults believe that we never actually landed on the moon. Belief is common that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin faked their lunar walk on a soundstage somewhere in Florida or near Houston. The cynics can get raspy at times. In 2002, Buzz Aldrin (who risked his life for America to walk on the moon not once but twice) was involved in an altercation with an in your face, we-never-landed-on-the-moon conspiracy monger in the lobby of the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles.
So, too, cynics abound and boo Barry Bonds as he marches up the all-time career home run list, catching Babe Ruth’s historic 714 last weekend in Oakland. Endless rumor and innuendo argue that steroids boosted Bonds’ performance, which he denies. Fans challenge Bonds with a fundamental incredulity based upon: (1) Bonds is too old to be hitting so many home runs; and, (2) nobody could hit Bond’s 2001 single season record 73 home runs in one season without cheating.
Both arguments are wrong and baseball’s own statistics prove it. Since turning 30, Bonds has hit 455 of his 714 home runs – 63.7 percent. Turns out that Babe Ruth hit 430 of his 714 home runs past the age of 30 – a very similar 60.2 percent. All-time great sluggers Willie Mays and Ted Williams both hit 57 percent of their career home runs after their 20’s. Invoking some cross-cultural perspective, Japanese all-time great slugger Sadaharu Oh hit 54 percent of his career 868 Japanese League home runs on the wrong side of 30.
What about Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001? Here comes Hall of Famer Willie Mays (who just happens to be Barry Bonds’ Godfather) to the rescue. In 1965, Willie Mays hit 52 home runs at the ripe age of 34. It was the era of the “dead ball” when teams were not scoring. (For example, that same year Tony Canigliaro lead the American League win an anemic 32 home runs).
To compare Mays’ 52 runs at age 34 with Bonds’ 73 at age 36 a benchmark is needed – total home runs hit by all batters in the league. In 1965, Willie Mays’ and his peers playing on the National League’s (NL) then 10 teams hit an aggregate of 1,318 home runs. Forty years ago, Mays’ 52 dingers represented 3.95 percent of all NL homers hit. In 2001, Barry Bonds and his peers playing on the NL’s expanded 16 teams hit an aggregate of 2,975 homers. Taking 62.5 percent of that total (adjusting 2001 totals downward as if there were only 10 teams playing as was the case in 1965), then NL sluggers hit 1,859 home runs in 2001. Bonds’ 73 dingers represent 3.93 percent of the NL total. Indeed, Willie Mays actually had a slightly better year hitting home runs in 1965 (3.95 percent of league total) than did Barry Bonds 40 years later (3.93 percent of league total). Indeed, with all the balls leaving the parks in the current era, the real question is why no one has hit 80 or 90 home runs in a single season. (With over 20 home runs by mid-May, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals just may do it this season and do so in the era of steroids testing).
Truth is that epic home run sluggers tend to be most dangerous past the age of 30. Whatever is lost in youthful reflex and agility is more than offset by maturity, experience and perhaps in the modern era, hundred million dollar contracts.
My suggestion to Bonds’ raspy critics is to relax, enjoy and watch with glee as one of the great, legitimate sluggers of all time leaves his mark on America’s favorite pastime – just as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really did leave their footprints on the moon.