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An “Impassioned” Defense of Barry Bonds

There is a general consensus that Manny Ramirez went out at the absolute nadir. His exit from the game was the anti-Ted Williams — the very worst way you could leave. Thus, on the barstool of American sports, the (perhaps warranted) skewering began. The fervor reached a pitch to which Joe Posnanski returned a volley. This week, he noted that, in the debate about steroid users and the hall of fame, those in the ‘against’ category are the most impassioned. He mentioned a Cleveland Frowns post that attempted to put some fervor into the pro-Manny side, but the fact remains:

If Ramirez “deserves” an impassioned defense, then Barry Bonds deserves one more.

It may be hard to see that side right now, so soon after Bonds was convicted of one count of obstruction of justice Wednesday in San Francisco, but let’s return to the numbers. A numbers-based approach may not *seem* like it contains much enthusiasm, but in this corner of the internet room, it has as much zeal as any red-faced shouter in the bar. In order to not be seen as manipulating the numbers, why not put up Barry Bonds’ ranks in all the relevant categories? And then add Manny Ramirez’s numbers and ranks for good measure?

Category Ramirez (number/rank) Bonds (number/rank)
Home Runs 555 (#14) 762 (#1)
RBI 1831 (#18) 1996 (#4)
Stolen Bases 38 (#UR) 514 (#33)
Runs 1544 (#56) 2227 (#3)
Hits 2574 (#83) 2935 (#31)
Batting Average .3122 (#86) .2981 (#227)
Walks 1329 (#36) 2558 (#1)
Strikeouts 1813 (#13) 1539 (#39)
BB% 13.6% (#131) 20.3% (#2)
K% 22% (#390) 15.6% (#1215)
OBP .4106 (#32) .4443 (#6)
SLG .5854 (#9) .6069 (#6)
OPS .9960 (#9) 1.0512 (#4)
OPS+ 154 (#25) 181 (#3)
wRC 1921 (#26) 2707 (#1)
wRC+ 152 (#25) 175 (#3)
WAR, position players 67.50 (#67) 171.80 (#2)

Had enough shouting? The numbers are stark, and if there’s a surprise, it’s how Bonds ranks in non-rate stats. Even in the traditionalist stats like RBI, stolen bases, and hits, he ranks in the top 35 all time at worst. If you take out strikeouts and strikeout rate (negative stats), his average rank in these categories is around twentieth. Sure, there’s plenty of double-counting here, and defense is not included other than in WAR, but Barry Bonds destroys numbers. He eats them like hanging breaking balls.

Of course, the ‘against’ crowd is mostly hung up on the cheating aspect, and it’s an understandable, if perhaps emotional, reaction to the things we’ve learned in the last few years. In response, I thought a mental exercise might make this personal for those of us that haven’t played professional sports.

Say you’re in a market-leading law firm. You’re eligible for partner. You survey the scene, and see that many of your peers are banking more hours than you. They’re madmen, clocking 16-hour workdays, and yet their output is not suffering. In fact, they’re killing it. All the adoration of the younger lawyers is directed in their direction, and they’re taking on huge cases, sometimes many at a time. As a senior associate, you’ve been successful, but you’re also an ambitious guy, and you can feel your grip on that partnership slipping. How are they doing what they’re doing? One day you catch an paralegal talking about how all the associates are using ephedrine and adderall, and how the drugs help them stay up and get work done – even calling them the “new coffee.” They are prescription drugs, and abusing prescription drugs is against the law. But your firm doesn’t drug test, and there’s been no institutional talk against the drugs.

Do you still manage to say no?

You may yet answer that you wouldn’t give in to temptation, but I submit that the hypothetical situation still humanizes the choices that Barry Bonds made. Manny Ramirez, as well, but his failed tests took it to another level, as it showed willful disobedience in the face of a structured steroid policy. Before you trash the hypothetical, know that from an anecdotal, personal standpoint, it’s anything but a stretch.

The study of numbers fosters a reasoned and balanced approach to baseball. This lack of bluster may hurt the side arguing that Barry Bonds deserves to be in the hall of fame. It’s also intellectually and emotionally difficult to get behind a consensus cheater. But, with the numbers as absolutely gaudy as they are, and the drug testing policy as it was in the mid-90s, it would be (will be?) a shame to keep one of the best three hitters in the history of baseball out of the hall of fame.