There are some great races brewing for the 2004 baseball season. The Red Sox against the Yankees. Pete Rose vs. the Hall of Fame voters. As for individual tête-à-têtes, a whopper is looming: Barry Bonds vs. Babe Ruth.
Bonds has 658 career home runs, ending last season just two shy of his godfather, hero and all-around paragon, Willie Mays, for third on the all-time list. The two players left ahead of him would be Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755).
The 56 total home runs Bonds needs to reach Ruth seem less approachable when you consider that Bonds has hit that many only once in his career, when he slammed his record 73 three years ago. But Bonds is pretty darned motivated to pass Ruth, a secret he let loose at last year's All-Star Game.
Said Bonds, "755 isn't the number that's always caught my eye ... the only number I care about is Babe Ruth's. Because as a left-handed hitter, I wiped him out. That's it. And in the baseball world, Babe Ruth's everything, right? I got his slugging percentage (.863 in 2001) and I'll take his home runs and that's it. Don't talk about him no more."
Anyone who knows Bonds understands that the "left-handed hitter" business is a smokescreen for the fact that Ruth was beloved and white, while Bonds is embattled and black. He grew up at the feet of a father, Bobby Bonds, whose speed-and-power package was not appreciated in its time. He almost certainly personalized Aaron's controversial quest to break Ruth in 1973-74, when idiot racists sent him death threats for having the temerity to top a white legend. All that and one doozy of a persecution complex from the moment Bonds himself entered the public spotlight mean that he will undoubtedly take special pride in pushing Ruth down the ladder a rung. Stay tuned.
Other home run milestones
If Sammy Sosa hits 48 home runs -- though he reached only 40 last season, he hit at least 49 for five straight years -- he'll move past Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson to No. 5 all time. Think about that: Sammy Sosa would be fifth. And he just turned only 35.
Two more players should pass the record for homers at certain positions. Alex Rodriguez has hit 344 of his 345 home runs at shortstop, one shy of Cal Ripken's record. (Rodriguez has taken slightly over half the number of games to reach that level.) And Mike Piazza, hanging tenuously to his catching job with the Mets, needs five home runs behind the plate to break Carlton Fisk's mark of 351.
It was only a few years ago that people overreacted and said that 300-game winners were extinct. The five-man rotation and rampant relievers, they claimed, had snuffed them out.
Well, one year after Roger Clemens got his 300th win, Greg Maddux is poised to do the same. The Hall of Famer without a team needs 11. Given that he has won at least 15 games for the last 16 consecutive years, this one's just about a lock.
Not to be outdone, with another great season Pedro Martinez could become the all-time leader in winning percentage. With a 166-67 career record, his .7124 mark stands just behind modern leader Spud Chandler's .7171. (Chandler went 109-43 for the Yankees from 1937-47.) Another 14-4 record -- the same as last year -- and Martinez would narrowly inch ahead.
Of course that could be only temporary, as Martinez has not endured any career slowdown yet. Another career record Martinez is closer to than many realize is the somewhat contrived walks-plus-hits-per-nine-innings (often known as WHIP), where he now stands third all-time at 9.121. Only Addie Joss' 8.710 and Ed Walsh's 8.996 have been better since 1900. Given that Joss and Walsh pitched in the dead-ball era, that's pretty incredible.
While Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron on the home run list will have to wait until at least late next year, Bonds is probably going to pass another significant all-time mark in 2004. He has 2,070 walks, second to Rickey Henderson's 2,190. Even if Henderson hooks on with another team, Bonds will almost certainly move into the top spot.
Free agent Todd Zeile, last seen with the Expos, has played for 11 teams in his 15-year career. If he plays for two more in 2004 -- he has played for a pair of teams in one year four times, including last season -- he will break Mike Morgan's record of 12.
Quick, which batter has the second-most strikeouts all-time? If you knew it was Andres Galarraga with an even 2,000, you win a prize to be named later. But Sammy Sosa (1,977) will pass Galarraga this season and have only Reggie Jackson's 2,597 in his sights.
With another 27 hit-by-pitches -- the number with which he led the National League last year -- Craig Biggio would edge past Don Baylor's 267 for the modern record. Hughie Jennings (287) and Tommy Tucker (272) had more in the 19th century.
Roberto Alomar has 474 stolen bases and 498 doubles, putting him in reach of 500 in each. Only five players -- Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Paul Molitor, Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson -- have done that.
With 94 wins, Bobby Cox, who has to be one of the most underrated managers in major-league history, will reach the 2,000 level. (Tony La Russa, who leads all active skippers, won his 2,000th game last September). Dusty Baker is 72 wins shy of his 1,000th win, which would come in just his 12th season.
Favorite Toy update
So far we've been talking about players who will reach magical milestones in 2004. But what about beyond that?
For this, we summon from the bullpen Bill James' Favorite Toy. Introduced in his self-published 1981 Baseball Abstract, the Favorite Toy is a delightful way to assess which players have a chance of reaching certain career totals -- 3,000 hits, 756 home runs and the like. The series of formulas essentially measure three things -- how far a player is from some level, how quickly he is approaching it, and how long (before he probably retires) he has to reach it.
Baseball Info Solutions, a relatively new statistics company with which James is affiliated, has included a page of updates in its 2004 Handbook.
The Favorite Toy estimates that 39-year-old Bonds has a 52 percent chance of breaking Aaron's record -- not to mention a 20 percent chance of zooming past him to 800. Alex Rodriguez (345 already by age 28) has a 43 percent shot of passing Aaron, while Sosa (539) registers at 37 percent. One shouldn't take those figures too literally, but taken together they do suggest that there's about an 83 percent (five out of six) chance that at least one of them will ultimately break Aaron's record.
The amazing Rodriguez also is in line for some historic hit and RBI totals. With 1,535 hits at age 28, he has a 45 percent chance for 3,000 hits and an active player-high 7 percent chance at 4,000. Then there's his 990 RBI, which give him a 24 percent chance of breaking Hank Aaron's record of 2,297.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.