Remembering Bobby Bonds

As I've matured, I've realized more and more what's most important in life: family and friends (not acquaintances). This truth was reinforced to me this past week -- because I lost a close friend, Bobby Bonds, who died Saturday after a yearlong battle with cancer and other health problems. He was only 57 years old. I attended his private funeral service that was held Thursday in the Bay Area.

Friends and family are really all you have that's worth anything in this life -- they are far more significant than money and material possessions.

Even though I've known for a while that Bobby was ill, it still hits hard to know that I won't be able to talk with him or see him again. The last time we spoke was earlier this month, about two or three weeks ago (it became difficult for him to talk on the phone toward the end).

In fact, I had planned to visit him this week. Sadly, I paid my last respects at his funeral instead.

I became friends with Bobby during our playing days. He started his major-league career in June 1968, while I played my first full big-league year in '65. After we retired, we played golf together regularly, and I found him to be an engaging and enjoyable person.

For years I've held golf tournaments for my youth foundation and charities, and there was something essential missing from this year's tournament, which took place last week.

Bobby wasn't there.

First 40-40 Eluded an Underrated Superstar
I've often said that Bobby Bonds is one of the most underrated players in the history of the game.

Five times he hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases in a single season. Bobby and his famous son, Barry Bonds, are the only major-leaguers to reach the 30-30 plateau in five seasons. Bobby remains the only player to achieve the milestone in each league.

Baseball history will tell you that Bobby's accomplishments were unique. Nobody else was going 30-30 then. In fact, in nearly two decades from 1964 to 1982 -- when Bonds posted his five 30-30 seasons -- only one other player did it (Tommy Harper of the Brewers). Bracketing those two decades in the 30-30 club were Hank Aaron ('63) and Dale Murphy ('83).

Bobby was one of baseball's pioneers in terms of combining tremendous power and tremendous speed. Others hit home runs and ran well, but Bobby was a rare blend of exceptional power and speed.

He should have become the first member of baseball's 40-40 club in 1973, but he just missed it. Bobby had 39 home runs and more than 40 stolen bases early in September '73, and I remember talking with him in Cincinnati with about three weeks left. I told him, "You'll get it. Just relax and do it." But, like Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano last year, he wasn't able to get that last home run.

So Jose Canseco became the first 40-40 guy in 1988, with 42 home runs and 40 stolen bases. Barry Bonds became the second member of the 40-40 club in '96 (42-40, like Canseco). Alex Rodriguez became the third in '98 (42-46).

All-Around Excellence
That 40-40 near-miss might epitomize Bonds' career, because as good as he was, he always fell short of major awards (and, so far, of the Hall of Fame).

Bobby had that tremendous season in '73 after he had come out from under the shadow of Willie Mays, who went to the Mets in '72. Mays' Hall of Fame career with the Giants spanned 20-plus years, starting in New York and moving on to San Francisco. You could make a good case that Bobby deserved the '73 MVP, but he finished third. My teammate with the Reds, Pete Rose, won the award, and Willie Stargell was second. Bobby had finished fourth in the '71 NL MVP voting.

Bobby's '73 numbers might not look especially impressive (39 HRs, 96 RBI, .283, 43 SBs). But I'll say over and over that it's much easier to amass stats today. The game was different when Bobby played. And besides his skills with the bat and on the basepaths, he was an excellent outfielder, winning three Gold Gloves. He could do it all.

Bobby received lots of support from the Hall of Fame's veterans committee in its most recent vote. I hate to think that now that he's died people will say he belongs in Cooperstown. It would be sad that it took Bobby's death to make people realize how great a player he was. Mays has long supported Bobby's Hall candidacy.

What hurt Bobby the most was the curse of unrealistic expectations. When he came up, he was called the next Willie Mays. That was unfair, because there never will be another Willie Mays. Plus, he was playing in the same outfield as Mays, the greatest player in the history of the game. So Bobby was always overshadowed.

Whenever you're compared to the greatest player ever, you'll always fall short. A similar thing happened to Bobby Murcer, who was called the next Mickey Mantle. Such accolades are hard to live up to.

Barry's Loss
Barry Bonds faces a difficult road in the days, weeks and months ahead. Bobby was always there for his superstar son. I remember earlier this year, when Barry was struggling, he told me, "My dad will be here tomorrow." That stuck with me -- it was as if he were saying that everything would be OK tomorrow.

Bobby arrived the next day, and after Barry took some BP with his dad, he hit a home run that night. Whenever Barry confronted any troubles at the plate, he always turned to his dad to help him work his way back. So this loss will be tough for Barry from a baseball perspective.

But beyond that, Bobby was his dad. Barry will miss that far more than anything else.

Barry took five days off last week to spend time with his father -- a decision he'll never regret. Now, Barry is on bereavement leave, and it's unclear when he'll rejoin the San Francisco Giants. I've seen lots of speculation about when he should return. But Barry is the only person who will know when he's ready. No one else is in his shoes.

I wouldn't even consider giving him advice on this question. I never lost a close family member during my playing days.

I'm sure Barry will dedicate the rest of this season -- and the rest of his career -- to his dad. But I don't believe Barry Bonds needs any more incentive. He's proved that by his record-setting 73-homer season two years ago, by his continuing assault on Hank Aaron's all-time record ... indeed, by his incredible career. Barry will simply want to honor his dad by being the best player he can be for the remainder of his career.

Whether Barry retires after this season or after five more seasons, it's clear that his dad was proud of him.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76.