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The All-Time MLB Team, Left Field: Barry Bonds

He was a seven-time MVP. But should there be an asterisk?

New York Mets v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

While Barry Bonds likely achieved his greatest renown - and, indeed infamy - as a member of the San Francisco Giants, most people probably know he was originally drafted by the Pirates, with the sixth overall pick in the 1985 draft. But three years earlier, the Giants had chosen Bonds in the second round of the 1982 draft, out of Junipero Serra High School, in San Mateo, California, where he hit .467 his senior year. Had they been willing to spend just five thousand dollars more, he would have signed, but Giants' management wouldn't go past $70,000 to the $75K Bonds wanted.

So it was off to Arizona State University instead, where he graduated with a degree in criminology. While he was a productive member on a highly successful ASU team, there was no shortage of friction between him and his team-mates. The aloofness which would become one of his defining characteristics was already fully developed. But there was no denying his talent. In his final season, 1985, Bonds batted .368 with 23 homers and a 1.159 OPS, and was selected by the Pirates. It was a stellar draft. The first forty picks included five players who'd post careers worth over 50 bWAR. As well Bonds, also chosen were Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Larkin, Will Clark, and some guy called Randy Johnson.

Bonds' minor-league career was brief: just 115 games before being called up in May 1986 as a 21-year-old, to a Pirates team coming off a 57-win campaign the previous season. He didn't really help. Bonds batted .223, though did hit 16 HR, but Pittsburgh went 64-98. However, his overall production improved every year, and after initially playing center, he became the Pirates' everyday left fielder. As Barry improved, so did the Pirates, eventually winning three consecutive NL East titles from 1990-1992.

Bonds won the National League MVP award in the first and last of these, along with three Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. He probably should have won MVP in 1991 too. But he came second to Terry Pendleton, despite being worth close to two wins more (8.0 to 6.1 bWAR). Even the winner admitted personality might have played a role in his victory, Pendleton saying, “A lot of people might not like dealing with a guy with Barry’s attitude." However, Bonds was not able to perform at the same level for Pittsburgh in the post-season. They failed to win a series in three attempts, Barry hitting. 191 with just one HR over 68 at-bats. Bonds, who had been set to be traded to Atlanta before the 1992 season until Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland vetoed the agreed deal, instead hit the free-agent market at the end of the year.

He became the highest paid player in baseball history to that point, after the Giants new ownership, intent on making a statement to announce their arrival, outbid Yankees for Barry's services. Bonds's six-year, $43.75 million deal destroyed the previous mark for total value, belonging to Cal Ripken, by over $11 million. But it payed immediate dividends. Bonds won another MVP award in his first season with San Francisco, helping the team to a 31-game improvement. This effectively drew a line under the first golden era of Barry's career. Over the 1990-93 campaigns Bonds hit .310/.433/.595 for a 1.028 OPS, and averaged 9.2 bWAR. Only two other position players had a 9 WAR season in that time: Ripken and Rickey Henderson.

Bonds remained a top tier player for the rest of the nineties, albeit at a slightly lower level. From 1994-99, he never finished in the top three for MVP voting. After barely squeaking into the results at age 34 in 1999, it seemed his best years were behind him. Then things changed. Bonds's had been using the (legal at the time) androstenedione since January 1997. But in 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark Mcgwire had their now-infamous PED-driven battle for the single season home-run record. They hit 66 and 70 respectively, shattering the long-standing mark of 61. Bonds hit only 37, and sources generally agree, was jealous of the adulation the pair received. At one point he allegedly told his mistress Kimberly Bell in reference to Mcgwire, ”They’re just letting him do it because he’s a white boy.”

In 1999, Bonds missed time due to an elbow injury, and according to Bell, blamed it on steroid use. In 2000, at age 35, a healthy Bonds set a career high with 49 home-runs, and was the MVP runner-up. But that was just an appetizer for 2001. No player that age had ever hit fifty home-runs in a season. Bonds hit 73, setting a new single-season record. He hit .328 and also set a new mark for walks, his 177 beating Babe Ruth's 1923 tally. Bonds had an OBP of .515, the first qualifying batter to get on-base more than half the time since Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle in 1957. The MVP award was a formality (albeit, perhaps surprisingly, not a unanimous one, Sosa getting two first-place votes). Barry would follow that up by winning the next three MVP awards as well.

While he'd not reach fifty homers again, his overall numbers escalated to unprecedented levels. 2004 was arguably the greatest single season by a hitter. Bonds hit .362/.609/.812 for a staggering 1.422 OPS, an MLB record. The .609 OBP was also an all-time high, driven largely by opposition fear. The intentional walk had always been used. He’d led the league in IBB every year from 1992-98, perhaps most memorably when Diamondbacks' manager Buck Showalter walked him in the ninth inning with the bases loaded. But no hitter had ever been intentionally walked fifty times in a season. In 2002, Bonds was IBB'd 68 times, and in that 2004 campaign, a staggering 120 times. No other TEAM that year received more than 64

That likely explains why Barry's HR numbers were lower after setting the single season record. There were simply fewer pitches for him to hit - as well as those 120 IBBs, Bonds was unintentionally walked a further 112 times, giving him just 373 at-bats. He still homered 45 times. But by then, the cracks were beginning to show in Fortress Bonds. In September 2003, federal investigators raided BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, as well as the home of Bonds’ personal trainer, Greg Anderson, seizing records they said showed Bonds was using banned substances. The hitter said he was told the substances in question were flaxseed oil and a rubbing balm for arthritis.

Bonds never failed an official MLB test for PEDs, and nor was he convicted of any crime. But the legal repercussions rumbled on for more than a decade: it was not until April 2015 that a conviction for obstruction of justice was overturned on appeal. But his reputation had been irreparably damaged, in particular by the meticulously researched book, Game of Shadows, which was published in March 2006, and documented the almost overwhelming evidence for Bonds’s persistent use of PEDs during his second surge of MVP-caliber performances. Barry’s career lasted three more seasons following his seventh and final MVP victory. but there were no more MVP mentions, as Bonds became persona non grata.

During his final season, 2007, he appeared in 126 games for the Giants and posted an OPS of 1.045, better than any qualifying hitter. That included his 756th home-run on August 7th, breaking another cherished record, the career mark held by Hank Aaron. He ended the year and his career with 762 home-runs. A few weeks after the season ended, he was pleading not guilty on charges of perjury. Despite his productivity, and an offer to play for league minimum, no club was interested in the massive distraction or all the other baggage which would come with signing the player. He filed a grievance, claiming collusion but lost the case. He never formally retired, yet never played again.

Bonds’s final career line was .298/.444/.607 giving him an OPS 1.051, or an OPS+ of 182 - fourth all-time. His 162.7 bWAR is the most by any position player, and he also has more walks than any other hitter. But it is worth remembering that he was not just a hitter, especially in his early years. Bonds won eight Gold Gloves and was worth 13.6 dWAR from his debut through the 1999 season. He also finished in the top ten for NL stolen bases on nine occasions. There’s no denying his prodigious talent across the board, yet Barry leaves behind him a complex legacy. A cheat? Almost certainly. A grade-A dick? By many accounts, surely. But the greatest left fielder of all-time? According to the SnakePit, that’s also the case.