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Tuesday, April 9
Updated: April 17, 5:59 PM ET
 
Time to put Bonds in greatest ever debate

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

    "He's beginning to make a case for himself as arguably being maybe the greatest player to ever play the game."
    --Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, on Barry Bonds

The Greatest Player to Ever Play the Game.

Those are words nobody ought to bat around willy-nilly like fungoes.

The Greatest Player to Ever Play the Game.

Our history professor told us once that "ever" is a real long time. Even longer than an 18-inning Royals-Tigers game.

So if Barry Bonds is really going to be considered "maybe the greatest player to ever play the game," he doesn't just have to fend off his contemporaries -- the Junior Griffeys and A-Rods and Rickey Hendersons. He has to deal with Ruth and Mays, Cobb and Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio -- not to mention Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker.

He's always been the best player in the game. Is he the best ever? What do I know? I only know what happened in the '90s. He's always been a complete player. He didn't have to hit 30 extra home runs to convince me of that.
Greg Maddux

And here's a fact: There's no fair way to do that.

There aren't enough numbers in the world. There aren't enough eyeballs in the world. There aren't enough memory banks. And there definitely aren't enough time machines.

"In everything -- not just in baseball -- I don't think it's fair to try to compare past to present," says Braves pitcher Mike Remlinger. "If we could go back and play on that same field with those players from the past, we could say, 'Yeah, I think this guy's the greatest,' or, 'No, this guy is better.' But we can't do that."

So we're going to establish this right now: This question can't be answered. But the great thing about baseball is that it's so much fun to ask.

You never hear anybody debate whether Eddie George was better than Red Grange. But Barry versus Babe is an argument that could fill a four-hour talk show, with 2,000 callers still waiting on hold.

We've spent the last few days polling players, managers, scouts, general managers and other assorted baseball people on Bonds and his place in the best-player-ever pantheon. They came to one conclusion:

He's the best player of his era.

Here's just a sampling of the consensus on that point:

  • From Tim Raines, Marlins: "In my lifetime, I haven't seen anybody like him, with the career he's had and the things he can do -- and he's getting better at this time in his life.

    "To me, what he did last year was probably the most remarkable thing that's ever happened in the game. To walk 170 times and hit 73 home runs? It was like: The only times he swings, he hits a home run.

    "When they throw him a strike, he hits it out of the ballpark. And when they throw a ball, he doesn't swing. I don't think anyone has ever been in a zone like that.

    "The guy has almost hit 80 home runs in a year -- a year and a week. He's got as many home runs in one year as I've got my whole career, in 23 years."

  • From Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks: "I don't think there can be an argument for what he is -- hands down, the best player in the game today. I think, when considering where he fits in among the all-time greats, you may have some arguing. The problem is the difference in the game today, versus earlier years.

    "Barry is a superstar in any era. But I don't know if he hits 70 riding trains, playing in those old huge parks, with a ball that's twice as soft as the new balls, with the older larger strike zone. And let's face it, 15 years ago, you could drop a hitter and never think twice about it. ... The game is just so different today. But for my money, there's no one even close to him right now."

  • From Greg Maddux, Braves: "For the years I've been playing this game, he's always been the best player in the game. Is he the best ever? What do I know? I only know what happened in the '90s. I just know he's always been great. He's always been a complete player. He didn't have to hit 30 extra home runs to convince me of that."

  • From Gerry Hunsicker, Astros GM: "He's the most remarkable offensive player in my lifetime. With the power he possesses and his compact swing, it's almost impossible to control bat speed. The only other player who approached this 'zone' was McGwire the year he broke Maris' record."

  • From Tom Glavine, Braves: "I don't know how good Mickey Mantle was, or Hank Aaron, or Willie Mays. But Barry is a great player. And Barry has been a great player. I've always looked at Barry's numbers and been amazed by them. Just now, he's hitting more home runs, so people are talking more about him."

  • From Gordon Lakey, Phillies scout: "I'm not sure he's the best ever. But he is the best in the last 20 years."

  • From Bobby Cox, Braves manager: "Ask Maddux. He'll tell you that over the last 15 years, Barry's been the best player in baseball. And that's a given for me."

    In his own time: Bonds is best
    OK, now it's time for us to make our case. Start with this: Barry Bonds was the player of the decade in the '90s. Period.

    He didn't just make the 30-30 Club. He had a 30-30 Decade -- he averaged 36 homers and 34 steals a year.

    He won eight Gold Gloves. He had a .434 on-base percentage for a whole decade. He led his league in the decade in homers, runs, RBI, walks, extra-base hits, on-base percentage and slugging. He won three MVPs and finished in the MVP top five six times.

    And in this decade, he's somehow gotten better.

    "You don't really see people improve this much this late in their career," Maddux says. "You might see a player improve that much between his first year and his fifth year. But you don't usually see it between his 10th and his 15th year. That's what amazes me."

    Bonds, of course, has his detractors. Because his postseason batting average is .196 and because he's never won the big one, one player says he expects Bonds to go down as "the Phil Mickelson of baseball." And one coach, speaking not for attribution, questions whether a man as disliked as Bonds has made himself ought to be considered the centerpiece player of his generation.

    "He could be all that is great about our game," the coach says. "And he isn't."

    But Ty Cobb wasn't exactly Dale Carnegie, either. And no one questions Cobb's greatness. So if we agree, for the most part, that Bonds has dominated his era, then the big question -- if he's going to go down as The Greatest Player to Ever Play the Game -- is: Has he dominated it like no one had dominated any previous era?

    That, we're afraid, is where Bonds' campaign runs into more trouble than Steve Forbes' campaign.

    We've perused those Best Player in History rankings, by esteemed sources ranging from Bill James to Total Baseball. And it's clear that if you do this strictly by numbers, almost everyone ranks Bonds behind Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays (Total Baseball had Bonds fifth before 2001, but would now rank him second, behind Ruth and ahead of Mays). So that doesn't even put Bonds in the all-time starting outfield, let alone the top of the charts.

    "To say he's the best left fielder of all-time would create much (debate)," says the Twins' assistant GM, Wayne Krivsky, "let alone the best player ever."

    "But," Krivsky adds, "his career is not over yet."

    Nope. Far from it. So as long as Bonds' great numbers continue to pile up, the debate will continue. And since all Jim Tracy really said was that Bonds was elevating himself into the argument, his present-day supporters aren't convinced that argument is over, just because the historians say so.

    "I can't imagine what it was like seeing Ruth, Williams, Aaron, Mays, DiMaggio, Cobb, etc. in the prime of their careers," says former pitcher, and current ESPN analyst, Tom Candiotti. "But somehow, it must have been like what we see Barry doing right now. He completely dominates the game, just as all the great stars of their day did."

    Reds GM Jim Bowden says Bonds is "definitely in the top five players of all time" and still going strong. One of his assistant GMs, Gary Hughes, has found himself reevaluating Bonds' place in history ever since he first read the words of Tracy.

    "My initial reaction to Jim Tracy's statement was that it was heresy," Hughes says. "I felt he's not even the best player in his extended family. (Willie Mays is.) And what about The Babe? There's Ty Cobb and, and ... then my thoughts became, 'Maybe he has a point.'

    "Barry Bonds was considered the best player defensively at his position -- and threw well enough for the position, as well. He's going to end up with more than 500 stolen bases, and where he's going to end up with his other numbers, a higher authority only knows."

    Bonds vs. Mays
    It's difficult to compare players across eras, but we can compare them to their league. Below, check the year-by-year OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) totals for Barry Bonds and Willie Mays, and the percentage higher they were than the league OPS. (Totals from baseballreference.com.)
    Year OPS Lg Diff. Year OPS Lg Diff.
    1986 746 732 +1.9% 1951 828 750 +10.4%
    1987 821 761 +7.8% 1952 736 727 +1.2%
    1988 859 693 +24.0% 1954 1078 772 +39.6%
    1989 777 690 +12.6% 1955 1059 757 +39.9%
    1990 970 715 +35.7% 1956 926 745 +24.3%
    1991 924 705 +31.1% 1957 1033 748 +38.1%
    1992 1080 703 +53.6% 1958 1002 752 +33.2%
    1993 1136 736 +54.3% 1959 964 748 +28.9%
    1994 1073 754 +42.3% 1960 936 714 +31.1%
    1995 1009 748 +34.9% 1961 977 744 +31.3%
    1996 1076 748 +43.9% 1962 999 741 +34.8%
    1997 1031 760 +35.7% 1963 962 693 +38.8%
    1998 1047 751 +39.4% 1964 990 718 +37.9%
    1999 1006 757 +32.9% 1965 1043 721 +44.7%
    2000 1127 766 +47.1% 1966 924 731 +26.4%
    2001 1379 749 +84.1% 1967 787 696 +13.1%

    1968 860 666 +29.1%

    1969 798 708 +12.7%

    1970 897 745 +20.4%

    1971 907 700 +29.6%

    1972 802 697 +15.1%

    1973 647 716 -9.6&
    Total 1003 735 +36.5% Total 941 729 +29.1%

    The Say Hey Kid still rules
    But Hughes also says: "I still think that Willie Mays is the greatest player that I ever saw." And he's got a lot of company in that view.

  • From Marlins manager Jeff Torborg: "Willie Mays was the best player I ever saw or, obviously, played against. If he'd known then that 40-40 would have meant anything, he would have done it. Or 50-50, for that matter. He could steal a base whenever he wanted to. Willie controlled the game -- on the bases, defensively in center field, at the plate. He was amazing."

  • From Braves coach Pat Corrales: "At the time I saw Mays, I'd never seen a guy play baseball like that -- to cover the ground he covered in center field, to do all the things he could do offensively. I was catching in Philadelphia one year when we kept him from breaking the record for home runs in September. He had 17. The record was 18. We stopped him, all right. He hit one about six inches from the top of the wall. He was just better than anybody else."

    But Corrales also says: "That's kind of the way Barry is now. A couple of our players were talking about him the other day. They said, 'We're good players, right? But then there's this guy. He belongs on the next shelf up.'"

    Some folks might argue that Mays didn't dominate his era quite the way Bonds has. But how could he, with Mantle and Aaron and Frank Robinson and Duke Snider around for virtually all of it, with Ted Williams and Stan Musial around for half of it?

    Nevertheless, Mays won two MVPs, four home run titles, four stolen-base titles, a batting title and 12 Gold Gloves. He led his league, at some point, in triples, runs scored, hits, slugging, on-base percentage, walks and hits. He made 20 consecutive All-Star teams. Before Bonds and Andre Dawson, he was the only player in history with more than 300 steals and 300 homers.

    And then there's the Babe ...
    But if the criteria for being The Greatest Player to Ever Play the Game is measuring a player against his era, how does anybody top Ruth? How could anyone ever top Ruth?

    "A few years back, I tried to make a case in my mind that Willie Mays was the best ever," says Lyle Spatz, chairman of the records committee of the Society for American Baseball Research. "But I could never get beyond the belief that that honor belonged to Babe Ruth."

    Ruth was Goliath in an era full of Davids. In two different seasons, he hit more home runs by himself than any other team hit. He used to account for around 15 percent of his league's home run total all by himself. Even in the greatest home-run season of all time, Bonds accounted for only about 2 percent of all National League homers last year.

    Bonds' career slugging percentage is now up to an incredible .585. But that's still 105 points short of Ruth, who ranks 56 points ahead of the next-closest player in history, Ted Williams.

    "He also led the league in slugging percentage 13 times," Spatz says, "in on-base percentage 10 times, and in on-base plus slugging 13 times. Bonds isn't anywhere close to that.

    "And if that's not enough," Spatz says, "the guy had a 94-46 won-lost record as a pitcher, with a 2.28 ERA. He also, at various times, led the American League in ERA, complete games, and shutouts."

    Yeah, say what you want about Barry Bonds. But he's never done any Randy Johnson impressions in his spare time. Then again, he isn't paid to do that. He's paid to hit those home runs, win those Gold Gloves and rise to a level few players have ever visited.

    Well, Barry Bonds has done that. And he isn't finished. And as long as he isn't, we'll keep on having these debates about questions that can't be answered.

    "Is he better than Babe Ruth?" wonders Bobby Cox. "Hell, I don't know. Who does know? Barry never pitched and won 20 games. I know that. But in his era, there ain't nobody close. And I mean nobody."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.






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