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July 18, 2007

Prospectus Today

Point of Separation

by Joe Sheehan

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Hmmmm. Let's see if we can sort out the particulars…

  • The San Francisco Giants are essentially out of any form of contention for 2007.
  • Barry Bonds has 751 home runs, four shy of tying, five shy of breaking Hank Aaron's all-time record.
  • The Giants are in the midst of a seven-game road trip, in advance of a seven-game homestand starting next Monday.
  • Barry Bonds didn't play Monday night. Barry Bonds didn't start Tuesday night, and picked up just one pinch-hitting appearance. Barry Bonds is not expected to start today.

Just…hmmmm.

A few weeks ago, I ripped the Houston Astros for manipulating Craig Biggio's playing time as the "second baseman" approached his 3000th hit. They sat him for two of three games in a series at division-leading Milwaukee to ensure that Biggio crossed his particular Rubicon in Houston in front of the home crowd. The decision just added to the farce that the Astros' 2007 season has been, in which they placed one player's pursuit of a statistical milestone ahead of any attempt at reaching the postseason.

With that as a backdrop, I should be writing similar things today about the Giants, correct? After all, Bonds started in the Giants' four games before the All-Star break and the three at home immediately following. Although the Giants have been even less successful than the Astros have this season-whereas you could argue that the Astros' series in Milwaukee was their last stand, the Giants, at this point, are done-the fact is that all the games matter. The general principle, that an individual record should occur in the context of a team's efforts, not because it's been pursued as a goal in itself, still applies.

The stated reason for Bonds' absence from the lineup, "sore legs," is just plausible enough to give pause. After all, Bonds is just shy of his 43rd birthday, two years removed from a season lost to knee problems, and he spends an awful lot of time on the basepaths. However, that same excuse is just vague enough to inspire doubt. Every ballplayer has a sore something come this time of the year, and no doubt Bonds was sore over the weekend when he started three times at AT&T Park. Giving him time off as the team goes on the road, with the chase for the record hanging over him, is more than a little suspicious.

The comparison between Biggio's pursuit of a record and Bonds' falls apart at this point, though. First, Bonds has been a productive contributor to the Giants this season, their best player and, in fact, a down-ballot MVP candidate. He's deserved to be in the lineup every day, and his playing time has been in no way contingent on his pursuit of the record. His season, on the whole, bears no resemblance to Biggio's, and relating the two is something of an insult to both Bonds and the Giants.

The more relevant difference is the backstory to Bonds' pursuit. Through a combination of the coverage of him, his career-long disdain for the media, his involvement with BALCO and the book that chronicled the same, and the unique shape to his career, Bonds' approach on 755 is regarded in many circles as suspect, or even illegitimate. While revered at home, Bonds is largely reviled on the road, booed frequently, and the subject of ill-informed screeds in local newspapers encouraging fans to treat him like a pariah. The caliber of argumentation in the coverage of Barry Bonds isn't worth rehashing. Instead, we're left to deal with the situation as it is in July of 2007, which is this: Barry Bonds is a hero at home, and a villain on the road.

That's what makes the Giants' apparent decision to manipulate Bonds' playing time defensible, if not honorable. Bonds' 755th and 756th home runs will be historic moments, replayed worldwide for generations to come. It is better for baseball-it is, in fact, essential for baseball-that the moment be cheered lustily, that it be about the crowning achievement of a great player's career rather than another reminder of the controversies of the past decade. If Bonds hits a historic blast in any place other than AT&T Park, I fear that it would be the latter, at best a mix of cheers and boos, at worst a black moment for the game.

I strongly suspect Bud Selig's reluctance to commit to appearing at Bonds' history-making games is tied to the potential for ugliness. Whatever positives have come from the Selig Era, the defining images of the man are his impotent shrug at the 2002 All-Star Game, and his hangdog appearance behind a microphone in 1994 to announce the cancellation of the World Series. I've no doubt that he doesn't want to add a third image to that collection, one of him shaking Bonds' hand in congratulations as disdain and disgust rain down from the stands.

The Giants have nothing to play for any longer, although I imagine the Brewers won't be all that happy if Bonds suddenly appears back in the lineup to face them over the weekend. It is clearly best for the game as a whole if Bonds breaks the record in front of the Giants' home crowd, where a positive reaction is ensured, and where the clips of Bonds' record-tying and record-breaking home runs will draw raucous cheering and curtain calls, rather than ambivalence. It's a different situation than what the Astros faced with Biggio, and it needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Barry Bonds

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