Barry Bonds, one of the very best and most controversial players in baseball history, is back with the San Francisco Giants this week as a special hitting instructor. Bonds, who by the time he retired following the 2007 season, was reviled almost throughout the baseball world, has always remained a favorite of most Giants fans. In this respect Bonds is an interesting contrast to Alex Rodriguez who is as despised now as Bonds was a few years ago. Rodriguez is also largely hated by Yankee fans as well. Bonds never had those kinds of problems with fans of his own team.
Bonds is different than most of the other great players associated with PEDs, with the exception of Roger Clemens, because he had already established himself as a transcendentally great player before there was any whiff of steroid use around him. To some extent, Bonds greatness made him more of a target once he began using PEDs. By his later years, when he was using PEDs, Bonds was the most dominant hitter since Babe Ruth. This engendered resentment because Bonds was making the game look too easy while posting cartoonish numbers particularly with regards to home runs and intentional walks.
Bonds had a nine year peak where he hit .305/.438/.600 for an OPS+ of 181. He finished in the top ten in MVP voting eight of those years while winning eight gold gloves and stealing 300 bases. Those are extraordinary numbers, but they are even more impressive because those years 1990-98, were not only a time when Bonds was not taking steroids, but, at least for the last few years of that period, a time when many others were. During those years, Bonds accumulated 76.2 WAR, the most in a nine year period since Willie Mays in his prime. Lost in the noise about Bonds and PEDs is that a clean Barry Bonds dominated the early steroid era in a way not seen in a generation. During those years, Bonds was also a remarkable player to watch. He was a complete player who could run, hit for power, steal bases and exhibit an extraordinary batting eye.
The second Bonds peak, lasting from 2001-2004, was even better. During those years when he was presumably using PEDs he hit .349/.559/.809, good for an OPS+ of 256. He walked an average of 189 times a season, 71 intentionally, during those years. By the end of that period, Bonds had a physique that seemed as inflated as his numbers, but even then baseball was trying to determine its steroid policy and willing to look the other way in most cases. Bonds on steroids was so good that he changed the game more than any player in a very long time. That combined with his notoriously poor media relations made him an easy scapegoat when baseball began to get serious, or at least wanted to be seen as getting serious, about stopping the use of PEDs.
Despite the loyalty of fans in San Francisco, Bonds relationship with the franchise for whom he played during most of his storied career is complex. Bonds was, in a very real way, born into the Giants family. Bonds's father was a star outfielder for the Giants; and his godfather is the greatest player in the history of the Giants, and possibly any other franchise. Bonds was also drafted by the Giants out of high school in 1982, but chose to go to college instead. When he signed with the Giants in 1993, it was almost like a homecoming for the most celebrated free agent signing in the team's history.
Nonetheless, when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, the first ever for the team in San Francisco, Bonds was not among the many former Giants great brought back to, in one way or another, participate in the celebrations. Moreover, more than a few Giants fans were relieved that the team that finally won was the 2010 version not the 2002 team that lost a seven game World Series, because that team was viewed as tainted by Bonds and his use of PEDs.
When faced with a tough decision following MLB's celebration of the steroid laden feats of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in 1998, Bonds made the wrong one. That reality cannot be ignored or changed, but it also should not be overstated. At a time when cheating was rampant and all but encouraged, Bonds cheated too. Punishment for those who used PEDs during that time has been capricious and inconsistent, but few have been treated worse by baseball than Bonds.
Bringing back the greatest player in their history not named Willie Mays to share his wisdom with a team trying to bounce back from a bad year is a smart and courageous move by the Giants. If it helps rehabilitate the reputation of one of the greatest players ever to play the game, that will be even better.