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Bonds not bitchin' about wide pitching

9/20/2002

Barry Bonds is threatening to surpass 200 walks? Fabulous: Another sports record we're not sure anybody actually wants to see. And coming up next on the Dubious Achievement Channel: Shaquille O'Neal sets his single-season mark for 3-pointers attempted and made!

Bonds hit 73 home runs last year, but, heck, forget it: His greatest achievement may come this season, if he can finish with 190-plus walks without erupting like Vesuvius back in the day.

Talk about your displays of professional composure. Bonds, developing into a hitter's hitter late in his career, gets more free passes than Spielberg's kids at a movie premiere -- and it's almost alarming how good he has become at accepting them.

Bonds taking a walk helps the San Francisco Giants, just not as much as Bonds swinging a bat helps the Giants. But you can work only with what you get, and what Bonds has gotten so far translates into a mind-boggling 186 walks -- three in Wednesday evening's game against the Dodgers alone.

It's an ongoing single-season record; Bonds sets a new one every time the ump bellows, "Ball four!" It is, of course, the worst "positive" record a guy can imagine, since it involves Bonds doing practically nothing but standing and watching. Most of his walks aren't remotely close. Never mind the 60-some "intentional" walks on Bonds' resume; with this hitter, they're virtually all intentional in one way or another.

If you're still looking for a reason to be amazed by Bonds, be amazed that, at 38, he is about to become the oldest first-time winner of a batting title -- while essentially getting only two or three decent pitches per game. In a strange way, all the walking has propelled Bonds into a new category of hitter. He's selective by force, effective by will. He hits the ones that come near the plate at such a staggering rate that he's got a chance of winning the National League batting title by a full 30 points over Colorado's Larry Walker. He's got a chance to lead both leagues by 30 points.


The statistics tell you that Bonds averages about 2.5 official at-bats per game. Unofficially, he's getting maybe one pitch per at-bat that's anywhere near the sweet spot -- two if the man on the mound is feeling gutsy. That's a handful of hittable pitches per game, and yet Bonds stood at .373 heading into Friday's play.

It's effective, albeit in the most plodding sort of way. Bonds, at 44 home runs and 105 RBI, won't approach the 73-homer, 137-RBI production he put together in 2001, yet he's going to finish second or third in the N.L. in runs scored and homers, and first in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

And, of course, first in bases on balls, the just-minding-my-own-business-here category of baseball honorific. It's like being inducted into the Bystander Hall of Fame.

Bonds has remained remarkably composed about the whole thing -- and understand, this is new territory even for Bonds. The man has taken his share of walks over the years and always commanded respect from opposing pitchers, but his number of walks recorded from 2000 to 2001 increased by more than 50 percent, from 117 to a then-record 177, and he's going up another 10 percent this year.

The Giants don't exactly have Bonds surrounded by a Murderer's Row -- Jeff Kent now bats in front of him, Benito Santiago behind -- but it's more than that. Pitchers simply have come to understand that you don't give Bonds anything to hit, first inning or ninth, bases jammed or bases empty. Pitching to Bonds has become a sort of bizarre last resort.

Yet Bonds' father, Bobby, has constantly advised his son to take those walks and get on with his game, and the only time Bonds has truly appeared frustrated by this phenomenon of relative inactivity was last fall in Houston, when the Astros walked him eight times in three games as he pursued Mark McGwire's single-season home-run record.

"You applied for a job to participate, not observe," Bonds said then, and the irritation was visible. It was also temporary. When the Astros finally gave Bonds a pitch to hit in the last game of the series, Bonds drove it off Wilfredo Rodriguez for his 70th home run. After that he went right back into this weird late life of his, walking when he isn't homering, scoring his runs, accepting what comes.

It's difficult not to wonder what the post-season might make of all this -- whether the casual unwillingness to pitch to Bonds during a July night game might become fanatical avoidance in October. Bonds has no post-season cachet; he's a .207 hitter in two Division Series with the Giants and stands at .191 in three career LCS appearances, all with Pittsburgh in the early '90s.

In San Francisco's first-round loss to the Mets two years ago, Bonds was walked three times in four games and never factored heavily in the outcome. The Giants, fighting the Dodgers for the N.L. wild-card spot, would love nothing more than to see Bonds with another chance to address his playoff record. It's a legitimate question whether the walkingest man in single-season history would be given the opportunity to act upon that chance.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com