Every so often a story will reach the newspapers about somebody so
old, the codger could make even Willard Scott's jaw drop,
somebody who remembers those nutty Wright Brothers, horseless
carriages and complete games. Actuaries and statisticians have a
term for such people. They're outliers. They don't fit into the
standard deviation. They render actuarial tables irrelevant. A
similar phenomenon can happen in baseball, as in the cases of
Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez, who in two smashing months have
sent sabermetricians scrambling for record books.
Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' leftfielder, is hitting home
runs at a rate some All-Stars can't match against cupcake-tossing
coaches in homer-hitting contests. Through Sunday more than one
out of every five balls he had put into play (26 of 112) had gone
out of the park. He got to 26 home runs quicker than anybody else
in history (in the Giants' 50th game), including Mark McGwire
(52nd game) in his record-busting, 70-homer 1998 season. Bonds's
sixth of the season, on April 17 off Los Angeles Dodgers
righthander Terry Adams, was the 500th of his career.
What makes no apparent sense about this career-best power
display is that on July 24 Bonds will turn 37, an age when
Mickey Mantle, his closest statistical twin, was finished and
most players' best years are well behind them. The average age
of the 16 other 500-home run hitters when they belted their
career high in homers was 29. Bonds is on track to easily
surpass his high of 49--set last season. A dizzying run of 11
homers in 10 games that began on May 17 at Pro Player Stadium
against the Florida Marlins and continued through Sunday at Pac
Bell Park against the Colorado Rockies had opponents describing
Bonds as "the best player I've ever seen" (Atlanta Braves third
baseman Chipper Jones), "the best player in the game" (Marlins
outfielder Cliff Floyd) and "a guy that you fear as soon as you
see him on deck" (Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa).
May 30 marked the 15th anniversary of the day Bonds, a wiry
leadoff hitter then, broke into the big leagues with the
Pittsburgh Pirates. That date also was the 29th birthday of
Ramirez, the Boston Red Sox DH. Ramirez's production has been so
prodigious that he could make a run at two of baseball's most
revered milestones: a .400 batting average (last accomplished by
Boston's Ted Williams in 1941) and the major league single-season
record of 191 runs batted in (set by the Chicago Cubs' Hack
Wilson in '30). Ramirez has such a nose for RBIs that when he
bats with runners in scoring position, it's like watching Tiger
Woods standing over a two-footer. The accolades for Ramirez
include "the ultimate RBI guy" (Boston catcher Scott Hatteberg),
"the freak" (Boston centerfielder Carl Everett) and "scary,
because he's just getting into his prime" (New York Yankees
manager Joe Torre).
So what do you call an age-defying power hitter who chokes up on
the bat and a hitting savant who bats with his hands slightly
spread? They are outliers. These guys are off the charts.
Despite the paces they are on, Bonds and Ramirez reject the
notions that they can break, respectively, the home run and RBI
records. Bonds even disputes that he has evolved into purely a
home run hitter, though his slugging percentage--a
major-league-leading and otherworldly .918 at week's end--is on
the rise for a fourth straight season; he had only 11 singles
among his 47 hits this season; he had slugged 41 homers in his
past 87 games; and every at bat is an event that keeps even the
full-bladdered welded to their seats with excitement.
"Barry is different now," says San Francisco second baseman Jeff
Kent. "He's swinging at more pitches and being more aggressive.
[Six of Bonds's 26 homers had come on the first pitch of an at
bat.] When he goes to the plate, everybody is watching. We all
know how hard it is to do what he's doing."
The 6'2" Bonds was listed at 185 pounds when he joined the
Pirates. He gained muscle over the years, most noticeably before
he arrived at spring training last year, as the result of an
intense new off-season strength-training regimen. His 49 home
runs last year were three more than his previous career high, set
in 1993, his first season in San Francisco after signing as a
free agent. The Giants list him at 228 pounds this year.
Many players add power as they age, but this much this late in a
career is unusual. Hank Aaron is the only other member of the 500
home run club to hit his career high in homers after age 34.
Aaron was 37 when he belted 47 in 1971. McGwire, with 65 in '99
at age 35, is the oldest to hit 50 or more in a season.
Always known for his fast, compact hitting stroke--no one
devours inside fastballs better--Bonds has lost none of his bat
speed while gaining strength. He's a lethal pull hitter who
punishes the overshifted defenses he usually faces by driving
balls through (and over) them. In the middle of his National
League-record nine homers in six consecutive games with at least
one homer in each game, Bonds, when asked for an explanation,
replied, "Some things I can't understand right now. The balls I
used to line off the wall are lining out [of the park]. I can't
tell you why. Call God. Ask Him. I try to figure it out, and I
can't. So I stopped trying."
In 10 at bats during three games at Atlanta's Turner Field on May
18, 19 and 20, he hit six solo home runs off six counts (0 and 1,
3 and 2, 2 and 0, 3 and 0, 2 and 2, 0 and 0). Six days later
Braves righthander Jose Cabrera, who served up the third of those
blasts, sounded like an eyewitness to a gruesome car accident
filling out a police report: "It's 2 and 0 and I want to try to
make the guy hit the ball. But, wow--I remember it right now--the
sound it made when he hit that ball. I mean, I didn't even have
to look back."
Bonds can no longer stake claim to being the best overall player
in baseball. He steals only one or two bases a month, and his
defense, while still above average, has slipped from his
spectacular standard of the mid-1990s. However, by embellishing
his career with new levels of hitting excellence, Bonds has
earned the right to be called the best player of his generation.
Yes, Bonds is haunted by October, as Dustin Hoffman is by
Ishtar. He's a .196 hitter in 97 postseason at bats, with only
six RBIs. Through Sunday, though, with 499 fewer regular-season
at bats than Mantle, Bonds was approaching the Mick's marks in
hits (2,415 for Mantle to 2,204 for Bonds), home runs (536 to
520) and RBIs (1,509 to 1,454) with plenty of baseball ahead of
him. How much? That's a question for San Francisco and other
clubs to ponder after the season, when Bonds is eligible for
free agency. No player has hit more than Aaron's 163 homers
after his 37th birthday--the last 22 of which occurred as a DH.
The most for a player past 37 without any at bats as a DH are
130 by Williams.
Should Bonds want a contract longer than three years, he could
wind up with an American League team. Otherwise, the Giants
would love to have him back. It would likely mean paying him a
record amount of money for a 40-year-old, with Dodgers ace
righthander Kevin Brown having set the bar at $15 million (for
2005, the seventh and final year of his $105 million contract).
Bonds hinted at his long-term plans after hearing of Jones's
remark that he could make a run at Aaron's record 755 career
homers. "Hell, no," Bonds said with his trademark bluntness. "I
promise you from the bottom of my heart, I won't be in the game
Meanwhile, Bonds is making the best salary run for a would-be
free-agent hitter since, well, take your pick: Bonds in 1992, one
of his three MVP seasons (after which he received a six-year,
$43.75 million contract from the Giants), or Ramirez last year,
when, as a Cleveland Indian, he became the first player to
average more than an RBI per game in consecutive seasons since
Joe DiMaggio in 1939 and '40. Well protected in a deep Cleveland
lineup, not to mention a smaller, more provincial market, Ramirez
accepted the risk of a more intense environment in Boston, not to
mention $160 million over eight years.
Ever since Ramirez introduced himself to Red Sox fans by
swatting the first pitch he saw at Fenway Park over the Green
Monster, he's been treated like a regular at Cheers. What's not
to like when he's batting .391, as Ramirez was through Sunday?
Famously shy, Ramirez in two months might also have exceeded his
eight-season Indians career total in media interviews.
"I wanted to change from how I was in Cleveland," he said last
Saturday at Fenway, before a 5-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.
"I'm trying to speak more, to be more relaxed and friendly.
Sometimes I still do my work--my hitting--before I'll talk. But if
I come back and the reporters are still here, I'll talk. Why not?
It doesn't hurt me."
The 6-foot, 205-pound Ramirez is a dedicated craftsman who takes
extra hitting, lifts light weights, jots notes on a small yellow
pad while studying videotapes of his at bats and gobbles up an
RBI or two like multivitamins. His 56 in 48 games through Sunday
led the majors, and his career rate of 0.85 RBI per game is the
sixth-best in history. There's no use in asking Ramirez to
explain how he does it any more than it was to ask Sinatra how he
summoned that voice. It is in his DNA. Ramirez has an RBI gene.
"I don't have a secret," he says. "If I don't drive them in,
somebody else will. One thing: I never worry. One situation is
more important than another? No. Every situation I approach the
same. Hit the ball."
Given how scalding No. 3 hitter Bonds and cleanup man Ramirez
have been, the question comes up: Will pitchers keep touching
the stove? Neither player has benefited from a hot bat behind
him in the lineup. Through Sunday the Giants' cleanup batters
ranked 10th in slugging among No. 4 hitters in the National
League, while the Red Sox' No. 5 hitters were 12th in the
American League. "I think the main reason he's still seeing
pitches [with the bases empty] is pride," says Toronto pitching
coach Mark Connor of Ramirez. "Pitchers still want to try and
get him out."
Bonds deserves credit for exploiting the few hittable pitches he
has gotten, says Atlanta righthander John Burkett, who adds, "The
way our staff felt was that if you threw him a strike, it was
going to be a home run. I'm not a hitter, but I think it would be
tough to walk two or three times in a game, not really have any
swings, and then all of a sudden, the pitcher throws you a strike
and you whack it out of the park. That's pretty impressive
On May 13 Oakland A's manager Art Howe resorted to a tactic
Ramirez and the Boston coaching staff said they had never seen.
Unconvinced that his pitcher, righty reliever Jeff Tam, could
keep Ramirez in the park, Howe ordered Ramirez intentionally
walked with nobody on base and one out in the 10th inning of a
tie game. The strategy worked: The Red Sox didn't score in that
inning, but Boston won 5-4 in 11 innings.
Similarly, Connor issued a warning to the Blue Jays' pitchers
about Ramirez before last weekend's three-game series. "If he
comes up in the eighth inning, and we have a two-run lead with
the bases loaded," said Connor, "we'll think about walking him."
It was a highly irregular idea, but one that Connor, as the
Arizona Diamondbacks' pitching coach, saw manager Buck Showalter
use with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a 1998 game. The
batter who provoked such a drastic maneuver? Bonds. That's what
happens with outliers. Convention does not apply.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON Hacking at Hack Relocated to Fenway Park, Ramirez is taking another cut at Wilson's 70-year-old mark.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO
From May 17 through Sunday, the Giants' Barry Bonds (below) hit
11 homers, giving him 26 in San Francisco's first 50 games--the
most home runs at that point of the season in major league
history. Here's a breakdown of his blasts.
Off righties-lefties: 7-4
First pitch: 2
0-and-1 count: 2
2-and-0 count: 2
2-and-2 count: 2
3-and-0 count: 1
3-and-1 count: 1
3-and-2 count: 1
One runner on: 3
Tied game: 3
Put Giants ahead: 2
To rightfield: 8
To centerfield: 2
To leftfield: 1
Average distance: 416 feet
With their power and propensity for getting on base, Barry Bonds
and Manny Ramirez (above) have cracked the career top 10 in the
category of on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) for batters
who have appeared in at least 1,000 games.
PLAYER OBP SLG OPS
1. Babe Ruth .474 .690 1.164
2. Ted Williams .482 .634 1.116
3. Lou Gehrig .447 .632 1.079
4. Jimmie Foxx .428 .609 1.037
5. Hank Greenberg .412 .605 1.017
6. Frank Thomas .438 .577 1.015
7. Rogers Hornsby .433 .577 1.010
8. Manny Ramirez .410 .598 1.008
9. Mark McGwire .397 .592 .989
10. Barry Bonds .413 .574 .987
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU