TSN Archives: Barry Bonds’ 71 homers are a lot, how about 755? (Oct. 8, 2001)

This prescient column, by MLB Insider Ken Rosenthal, first appeared in the Oct. 8, 2001, issue of The Sporting News, under the headline “If 71 homers are a lot, how about 755?”, looked beyond Barry Bonds’ being on the precipice of hitting a single-season record 73 home runs for the Giants and looked at Bonds’ shot at Hank Aaron’s career home-run record.

Baseball fans didn’t grow too wistful over the number 70. Its luster as the single-season home run record faded after only three seasons. The number 755 presumably would stir greater excitement, and Barry Bonds stands a chance of erasing that one from the record books, too.

That’s right, 755, as in Hank Aaron’s career home run mark, which has stood for a quarter of a century. “I won’t be around for that,” Bonds sniffed earlier this season. OK, Barry, tell your agent, Scott Boras, that you will not accept a free-agent contract of more than three years. Better yet, do the math.

Bonds, 37, began the week with 563 career homers — four 48-homer seasons shy of Aaron. Boras, author of “Alex Rodriguez, A Historical Perspective,” probably can’t wait to make his next case: Aaron hit 245 of his 755 homers (32.4 percent) after age 35, and athletes are in better condition today than they were then.

The Aaron record almost certainly is out of reach for a broken-down Mark McGwire (582 career homers). It is looking increasingly difficult for the injury prone Ken Griffey Jr. (age 31, 459 homers). It may be possible for Sammy Sosa (33, 445) or Rodriguez (26, 239), but that’s much further down the road.

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Bonds has established career highs in home runs in each of the last two seasons. It’s doubtful he will continue that trend, but if he averages 50 over the next three seasons, he will be in Babe Ruth (714) territory, within striking distance of Aaron.

How much would the Giants pay for the right to continue hosting history? How much would Yankees owner George Steinbrenner pay for the chance to have another homer-record holder in the Bronx? How much would the Rangers, Astros and other clubs with homer-friendly parks consider stretching their budgets for Bonds? Even in an uncertain economy Bonds probably will get at least three years and $60 million.

The Aaron record is the next frontier. Offensive statistics have become so inflated, fans no longer seem impressed by single-season achievements. The expected 60-homer season by Sosa would be the sixth by a major leaguer in the past four years. Before 1998, there had been only two such campaigns, and none in 37 years.

Major League Baseball should be disturbed by the lack of excitement surrounding Bonds, and it can’t solely attribute the indifferent reaction of many fans to the change in the national outlook after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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Even before then, the Bonds buzz was minimal. Part of that was because of his reputation for being a jerk. Part of it was because he plays most of his games in Pacific Time, when many East Coast fans are asleep. But most of it was because of the been-there-done-that sentiment resulting from McGwire’s run.

The sad part is, Bonds’ season is statistically superior to McGwire’s ’98 campaign. It will go down as one of the greatest offensive seasons in major league history even if hitting home runs is easier in 2001 than it was in 1927 (when Ruth hit 60) or ’61 (when Roger Maris hit 61).

Bonds has set major league records for most road homers in a season and most homers by a lefthanded hitter. He is almost certain to shatter McGwire’s all-time mark for home run frequency (Bonds is averaging one every 6.68 at-bats, McGwire averaged one every 7.27). Bonds began the week on pace to surpass Ruth’s 78-year-old record of 170 walks in a season.

And Bonds was doing all this in the middle of a pennant race, at an age when most players start to decline.

With seven games remaining, Bonds’ slugging percentage stood at .848, 1 percentage point higher than Ruth’s 81-year-old major league record, and a staggering 92 points higher than Rogers Hornsby’s 76-year-old National League mark.

Bonds’ .504 on-base percentage, meanwhile, indicates he is getting on base in more than half his plate appearances. And his final figure is almost certain to be the highest since Mickey Mantle finished at .512 in 1957.

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Slugging percentage and on-base percentage reveal more about a player than batting average, but most fans aren’t attuned to such statistics. They are, however, attuned to the game’s biggest records: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games, Aaron’s 755 home runs.

Let’s say Bonds passes Aaron in 2006. By that point, the home run record will have stood for 30 years. Ruth’s previous career mark lasted 41 years. Maris’ previous single-season mark lasted 37. The gap between Aaron and Bonds would fit the historical pattern.

The bigger question would be the context of the record. Major league teams averaged more than two homers per game for the first time in 1987, then fell below that figure for the next six seasons. Since ’94, teams have exceeded two per game in every season. Through last Saturday, the average this season was 2.25 per game.

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Bonds was a premier power hitter before the game’s statistical upturn. He hit 222 of his 563 homers (39.4 percent) before ’94 and a mere 25 in ’87. But would he have hit as many homers had he played in the same era as Ruth or Maris? Probably not.

Of course, the same argument could have been made against McGwire in ’98, but few fans were preoccupied with such details in their rush to crown a new home run king. Bonds’ pursuit of Aaron could be more problematic. By the time Bonds draws close, fans might be numb to every type of power exploit.

The number 70 barely had a chance to make an imprint on the public’s consciousness. The number 755 has been with us for an entire generation. If Bonds catches Aaron, he will deserve McGwire-style adoration. And if another slugger passes Bonds with less fanfare a few years after that, that player will know just how it felt to be Barry Bonds in the fall of 2001.

Postscript: Bonds, 43 at the time, hit his 756th home run on Aug. 7, 2007, at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Less than a month later, he hit his 762nd and final homer, at Coors Field in Denver.

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