Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Updated: April 15, 10:03 AM ET
Bonds improving with age
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
Editor's note: This story originally aired on SportsCenter.
They are baseball's version of the Holy Trinity -- Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays -- and their order hadn't changed in 30 years. Now it has. Barry Bonds has made No. 3 all his own, passing Mays, his godfather, with his 661st home run. Next up, The 700 Club.
It has been a remarkable journey for Bonds, who began his career in 1986 as a speedy, slender, 185-pound leadoff man for the Pirates. Now he's on his way to becoming one of the three greatest hitters in history with Ruth and Ted Williams, and perhaps the all-time home run king ... amazing considering he didn't hit his 100th homer until age 26, three years later than Aaron. Bonds' first 30-home run season came in his fifth year, his first 40-home run season came in his eighth year and his first 50-homer season in his 16th year.
Bonds' evolution has been quite different than that of Mays, who won the 1954 batting title (.345) in his third season. He hit 41 homers that year, 51 the next. He stole 43 bases in his first four years; Bonds had 117. Mays had fabulous years in his early 20s; Bonds' best have been in his mid to late 30s. Bonds, Aaron and Rafael Palmeiro are the only players to hit 200 homers after turning 35. Bonds has won three straight MVPs -- a first -- as he approaches 40.
Bonds' last three years arguably constitute the best three-year stretch of anyone's in history. He set the major league record for home runs in a season with 73, followed that with his first batting title, then followed that by hitting 45 homers with a .341 average. He became the first player since Ted Williams in 1941-42 to lead the major leagues in batting one year after leading the major leagues in home runs.
Bonds' slugging percentage the last three years combined is .808 -- only Ruth has slugged .800 in a season. The next highest slugging percentage the last three years is .631 by Todd Helton. That .177 gap is larger than the gap between No. 2 and No. 98, Jeromy Burnitz. Bonds' on-base average the last three years combined is .542 -- .101 points higher than Jason Giambi's. That gap is larger than between No. 2 and No. 116, Paul Konerko.
Bonds will turn 40 on July 24. Only 10 players have hit as many as 32 home runs in their 40s, led by Carlton Fisk's 72. Ted Williams' 29 home runs in 1960 were the most in a season by player who was at least 40 years old on Opening Day. The records of Fisk and Williams are likely to fall to Bonds. If so, he will pass Mays, Ruth and Aaron.
The order will change again. Bonds will be the king.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.