If we were to only look at numbers, most observers would agree that Barry Lamar Bonds is the greatest baseball player of all time. However, there is much more to the Bonds story than just numbers. He will go down as the all-time career home run leader with 762. He has the greatest single home run season with 73. He has a record of 7 National League MVP awards. He has a record 12 Silver Slugger Awards. He is the MLB career leader in walks. Only Babe Ruth can boast a better number in the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric. All that said, there are 2 major things Bonds does not have. He does not have a World Series ring and he does not have the overall trust of baseball writers and fans alike. Bonds was a central figure in baseball’s steroid scandal that dominated the sport through the late ’90s and early 2000s.
He Might Be Giant
Bonds always seemed destined to be a San Francisco Giant. He was originally drafted by the team out of a local high school in nearby San Mateo, California. However, just $5,000 got in the way of their first potential marriage. He wanted a $75,000 signing bonus and the Giants only offered $70,000, so they could not come to a contract agreement. Bonds instead went to college, spending 3 years at Arizona State. He was drafted 6th overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he would end up playing the first 7 years of his career. His time in Pittsburgh was defined by big numbers but team disappointment. Alongside Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke, Bonds was part of a devastating middle of the order that led the team to 3 straight division crowns from 1990-1992. But they were denied a trip to the World Series each time. After the 1992, season, Bonds left Pittsburgh for a record free-agent deal. He became a Giant, just like his Dad Bobby and his Godfather Willie Mays, signing for 6 years and 43.75 million dollars.
Player of the ’90s
Bonds burst onto the San Francisco scene, winning the MVP award in his first year as a Giant with a .336 average, 46 HRs, and 123 RBI’s. He sustained statistical success throughout the remainder of the decade, even being named the best player of the ’90s by statistician Bill James, but the Giants were not achieving much in terms of team success. They won the NL West in 1997 but quickly fizzled out of the postseason. In the meantime, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were reviving baseball from the doldrums of the 1994 lockout by putting on an epic chase for the single-season home run record in 1998. They both snapped Roger Maris’ record of 62 long balls, Sosa with 66 and McGwire with the new record, 70. This all set the stage for the next phase of Bonds’ career, which is the phase that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
Bonds won the MVP award 4 straight years from 2001 to 2004 and also shook off the label of postseason choker by leading the Giants to the doorstep of a World Series championship in 2002. He hit .322 with 8 home runs in their run, which saw them fall to the Angels in 7 games. The prior season, Bonds obliterated a number of major league records, including McGwire’s 1998 mark of 70 home runs. Bonds hit 73 that year, to go with a record .863 slugging percentage. However, the entire era was brought into question during the BALCO Labs controversy of 2007.
A federal investigation into Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative unearthed a massive steroid scandal across baseball with Bonds sitting right in the crosshairs. He was indicted by the Grand Jury on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The perjury charges were later dropped and his initial conviction on obstruction charges was later overturned, but there was enough suspicion that the baseball world has moved forward on the assumption that Bonds was an illegal steroid user.
This assumption has tainted his numbers in the minds of many and kept him out of the Hall of Fame. His name has been on the ballot for 8 out of 10 eligible years and while his numbers continue to go up each year, he has not cracked the necessary 75% mark as of yet. His highest vote total came in 2020 at 60.7%.