Remember, kid: There’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered … legends never die. – Ghost of Babe Ruth
If you’re like me, a lover of baseball who grew up in the nineties, you’ve seen The Sandlot more times than you can count. Like any good kids movie, it has entertaining characters, loads of mischief, and is extremely quotable. And even though I’ve known every word of the film for what feels like my entire life, it wasn’t until I watched the movie as an adult (status pending) that the above quote struck home in a different way. Do something heroic and people will fondly remember what you’ve done; do something legendary and you will exist forever, immune to fading from history. Heroes and legends are not the same thing.
Some kids travel a lot, visiting exotic locations on family vacations, seeing more than most will in a lifetime. Other kids get the coolest toys, the trendiest clothes, the best video games, or that bitchin’ bike. Me, I didn’t really have any of those, but don’t hire any sad violin soloists quite yet. I had something that, for my memories, was better than any of the above luxuries combined: My dad had season tickets for the San Francisco Giants. With his seats located directly behind home plate, I’ve always been a bit spoiled when it came to ballpark seating. My spoiled level jumped up quite a bit when the Giants moved to AT&T Park: with the amount of foul territory dropping drastically, we moved up 15 rows without moving up at all. Candlestick is where my baseball life began, but AT&T Park is where I grew up. It’s a personal goal of mine to never forget how fortunate I’ve been.
I’d like to think that even if the Giants had stunk my whole life, I’d still feel as fortunate. Luckily, the Giants have limited their overall stinkage in my lifetime, and were one of the best teams in baseball during the early years of Pacifc Bell/SBC/AT&T Park. This, of course, coincided with some of the most dominant offensive seasons in baseball history by one Barry Lamar Bonds. Over the years, I’ve seen some truly special moments at that ballpark, but nothing has ever been quite like what I saw over three nights in August of 2003.
It’s Tuesday, August 19th, 2003. The San Francisco Giants have returned home to Pacific Bell Park for a three game tilt against the Atlanta Braves, owners of the best record in baseball. They’ve just gotten back from a road trip through New York and Montreal, where they were swept out of both cities, and now have won just seven of their past 20 games (Luckily, the Giants’ division lead has dropped only to 8.5 games, the smallest their lead will be for the remainder of the season). Losing two games against the Mets certainly stinks (a rainout cancels the third game), but losing all four to the Expos has an extra bit of sting to it, as Barry Bonds missed the entire series. Bonds flew back home to be with his father, Bobby, who is dealing with a variety of ailments, mainly, lung cancer. But Bonds is back in the lineup tonight, batting in his usual cleanup spot and patrolling his customary patch of grass of left field. Former Giant Russ Ortiz currently leads the league in wins, and is starting tonight for the Braves, facing off against Giants rookie Jerome Williams.
The game is an exchange of dingers and doinks: The Braves strike first, with a solo home run from Marcus Giles in the second at bat of the game. The Giants answer back with a sacrifice fly from Neifi Perez in the bottom of the 2nd, plating Benito Santiago. Gary Sheffield leads off the top of the 4th with a solo shot, and the Giants pull level in the 5th with a Marquis Grissom double that scores Rich Aurilia. Javy Lopez gives the Braves their third homer of the night in the 7th, cashing in on a Robert Fick leadoff walk to make the Braves lead 4-2. The Giants quickly respond with a home run of their own, a solo shot from Jose Cruz Jr. to lead off the bottom of the 7th frame. They eventually tie the game up in the 8th on an 0-2, 2-out wild pitch by Trey Hodges, scoring Todd Linden from 3rd. The 9th inning expires with the score still level, Tim Worrell pitches his second scoreless inning of work to bring the Giants into the dugout with the score still tied at 4.
Barry Bonds is due up first in the bottom of the 10th. Pedro Feliz and Yorvit Torrealba are also due up … but you don’t think this is about Feliz or Torrealba, do you?
The Braves bring in lefty reliever Ray King, who Bonds is hitless against in seven career plate appearances. King gets Bonds to swing and miss on the first pitch before burning two balls out of the zone, making the count 2-1. Luckily, the fourth pitch of the at bat is available on YouTube:
Career home run number 651. I leave the ballpark riding the best high a 13-year-old baseball fan can have.
“I just got a lot of emotions going for me and my dad,” says Bonds before hastily exiting Pacific Bell Park to be with his father.
It’s the only hit of Bonds’s career against Ray King. After this plate appearance, Bonds goes 0 for 10 with a walk and a hit by pitch in the remainder of his battles against King. Of all the pitchers to face Bonds at least 15 times, King held him to the lowest average, .059.
One of the most memorable players from my childhood was Chris Brock. What’s that? You don’t remember Chris Brock? Career 18-17 record with a 4.81 ERA, how could you forget about him? He spent parts of six seasons with the Braves, Phillies, and Orioles, but entered my life when he was with the Giants in 1998 and 1999. In the summer of 1999, I was a member of the Junior Giants, a youth baseball program run by the Giants Community Fund. There was a clinic for the Junior Giants at Candlestick Park with some Giants players. The two players I remember being there were Chris Brock, and Giants rookie Joe Nathan.
Chris Brock was teaching us some basics on pitching, and to simulate a real situation, picked a couple of kids to stand in for the batter and catcher. I was picked as the batter, and when he started his windup, I began inching away. Excuse me, but nine-year-old me wasn’t even comfortable in the batters’ box with kids who hardly threw 50 MPH; this was a Major League pitcher throwing the ball my way. Brock stopped his windup. “I want to hit you as much as you want to get hit,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to hit the ball when you’re getting further away from it.”
It’s powerful stuff when a big league ballplayer talks to you like you aren’t a kid, and his words stuck to me. Standing there while he threw was still terrifying, but it made it a lot easier to face little league pitchers. I lost my fear of getting hit and even racked up a good amount of HBPs along the way. I stopped playing baseball when I was 13, but I’ve always enjoyed thinking about my small interaction with Chris Brock. He got injured a couple of weeks after our paths crossed and never pitched for the Giants again.
Just because someone’s profession thrusts them into the public eye doesn’t mean that we should look to them as role models, or to assume that they can be heroes. To a nine-year-old member of the Junior Giants, though, Chris Brock was a hero, and I think everyone should know that. I’m going to remember Chris Brock forever … but that doesn’t mean that you will.
It’s Wednesday, August 20th, 2003, and another 7:15pm start on the shores of McCovey Cove. It’s typical August-in-San Francisco weather, mid-60s with a light breeze. Shane Reynolds is starting for the Braves. Entering the game, Reynolds has the most early-2000s pitching line ever: 10-6 with a 5.44 ERA over 22 starts. And, of course, he pitches his best game of the season: one earned run on five hits over eight innings pitched, the only time he lasted eight full innings all season. The Giants’ only run against Reynolds comes in the eighth, a one-out bloop single to right field from Andrés Galarraga, scoring Benito Santiago from 3rd. However, in an ironic twist of early-2000s baseball fate, one earned run from the ten-win pitcher with an ERA over 5 wasn’t quite good enough to get the Braves the win.
In the middle of the first, a message displays on the Pacific Bell Park scoreboard: “A Giant Welcome to Bobby Bonds. 3-Time All-Star.” Bobby had mustered up enough strength to visit the ballpark to watch his son play. “My greatest happiness,” Bobby once said, “is being known as Barry Bonds’ dad more than being known for myself.”
Jesse Foppert is starting for the Giants, in his last appearance before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He only lasts 3.2 innings, allowing an Andruw Jones single in the third that plates Gary Sheffield, before experiencing neuritis in his right elbow, and yields to Jim Brower. Brower, Matt Herges, and Joe Nathan combine for 5.1 scoreless innings, and the Giants are up in the 9th with the score tied.
Barry Bonds is due up fourth. Every single person at Pacific Bell Park is well aware of this fact.
Reliever Kevin Gryboski is in for the Braves. Eric Young leads off the 9th by grounding out to first. Rich Aurilia follows up with a swinging bunt down the third base line, which he beats out for an infield single. Marquis Grissom comes up, and loops a hit to right field. It’s at this point that Rich Aurilia commits the ultimate no-no in the eyes of Giants fans: he goes to third on Grissom’s single.
Why’s this a no-no? Well, because now Barry Bonds is coming up, and there’s an open base. In 2003, Bonds came to the plate with a base open (either a runner on second, a runner on third, runners on both second and third, or runners at the corner) 90 times.
He was walked 58 of those 90 times.
The other 32 plate appearances? 13 hits, a sac fly, and only four strikeouts. He finishes the season with an on base percentage of .654 with runners in scoring position. That stat rises to .725 with runners in scoring position and 2 outs.
So Aurilia takes third on Grissom’s single, and everyone knows what Gryboski will do with Bonds. It’s his 50th intentional pass of the season, and accrues 11 more after this to finish at 61. No other player eclipses 30 intentional walks in 2003. Excluding the Giants, only three other teams surmount at least 60 intentional walks for the entire season. Five of the intentional walks issued to Bonds came with the bases empty.
The next batter is Edgardo Alfonzo, who hits a ground ball up the middle and through the infield, giving the Giants their second consecutive walk-off victory.
Bonds’s walk also makes it 38 consecutive games in which he has reached base safely, a streak that will eventually end at 57 consecutive games, the fifth longest streak of all time. Bonds started in 128 games in 2003, and failed to reach base safely in only five of those games. At the end of play on August 20th, 2003, Bonds’s season OPS sits at 1.267, the lowest it will be for the remainder of the season.
Here’s a list of players from MLB’s history, try to figure out the specific thing that they all have in common:
- Willie Mays
- Brooks Robinson
- Al Kaline
- Willie Stargell
- Lou Brock
- Phil Niekro
- Gary Carter
- Cal Ripken Jr
- Barry Larkin
- Dave Winfield
- Ozzie Smith
- Kirby Puckett
- Tony Gwynn
- John Smoltz
- Craig Biggio
Anything? Yes, they’re all in the Hall of Fame, but they’re also the only members of the Hall of Fame who were also recipients of MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award, an annual award bestowed upon the player that “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team.” The award is aptly named after Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash en route to delivering supplies to victims of the 1972 Nicaragua earthquake.
All of the fifteen men listed above have a plaque in Cooperstown. Not a single one of those plaques mentions the charitable contributions that those players made. Neither does Roberto Clemente’s.
Nor does Ty Cobb’s plaque mention that he was constantly trying to injure opposing players and was an anti-semite. Nor does Gaylord Perry’s plaque mention his incessant use of the spitball, an outlawed pitch. Cap Anson’s plaque doesn’t acknowledge that he refused to take the field if any black players were involved, Roger Hornsby’s doesn’t mention his gambling addiction, and the plaque of every player elected from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s has no mention of the “greenies” (amphetamines) that were readily available in every big league clubhouse.
Because that’s not what the Hall of Fame is for.
Whether they’re charitable deeds, like those of the Roberto Clemente Award winners and Chris Brock, or lamentable sins, like those of Ty Cobb, Cap Anson, and, yes, Barry Bonds, they’ll inevitably fade from the public’s memory. When all is said and done, all that will remain will be stats on a page, and stories of their playing days. That’s why it’s the Baseball Hall of Fame, not the Human Hall of Fame.
It’s Thursday, August 21st, 2003, the finale of the series with the Braves. The Braves haven’t been swept on the road all season, and have only lost three straight twice. Rookie Horacio Ramirez is starting for the Braves, facing Giants ace Jason Schmidt. Schmidt pitches a gem, scattering three hits over eight innings, while allowing only one walk and striking out seven. Only two runners advance past first base while Schmidt is pitching, and neither advances any further.
Horacio Ramirez’s night doesn’t go quite as well. The Giants grab a run in the second, and two more in the fourth. With Schmidt’s dominant performance, three runs seem like plenty, but Bobby Cox’s squad won’t be swept so easily. Schmidt’s pitch count runs to 105 after his eighth inning of work, and manager Felipe Alou decides that’s enough, and brings in closer Tim Worrell. After leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal singles to center, Rich Aurilia boots a double play grounder hit by Mark DeRosa, which is followed by a walk to Gary Sheffield. Andruw Jones comes up with the bases loaded, and smacks a double to left-center, bringing in Furcal and DeRosa, and moving Sheffield to third. Worrell intentionally walks Robert Fick to re-load the bases. The three run lead has shrunk to just one, and there are still no outs.
Vinny Castilla comes to the plate for the Braves, and hits a deep fly-ball to center for a sac-fly, tying the game, and spoiling Jason Schmidt’s stellar performance. Still with only one out, and with runners on first and second, Braves left fielder Darren Bragg hits a line drive straight at first baseman Andrés Galarraga, who snags the ball and steps on the bag for a double play. For the third straight night, the Giants enter the bottom of the 9th with the score tied.
It takes Braves reliever Will Cunnane only five pitches to retire Todd Linden, Eric Young, and Rich Aurilia in order. Felix Rodriguez comes in for the Giants and allows two runners to reach base before getting Sheffield to fly out to left, bringing the Giants up in the bottom of the 10th.
He’s due up second, in case you’re wondering.
Trey Hodges is brought in for the Braves, and I’m nearly certain that every one of the 41,745 in attendance are practically rooting for Hodges to retire Marquis Grissom, who leads off the inning. Sorry Marquis, but we’re trying to see the guy on deck take some cuts.
Grissom acquiesces, striking out on three pitches, and Bonds saunters up to the plate. He only sees one pitch.
It’s at this point that I must complain. There is injustice in the world, and sometimes it exists in the form of every sporting moment ever not being readily available for sharing. I can show you a video of Barry Bonds hitting a broken bat home run, I can show you a video of Barry Bonds obliterating a ball at Yankee Stadium, and I can show you a video of Barry Bonds hitting a home run in the World Series that makes Tim Salmon utter with amazement, “That’s the furthest ball I’ve ever seen hit.” Unfortunately, no online video exists of what happens next.
And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, what happens next is home run number 652.
A first-pitch sinker from Hodges that didn’t sink nearly enough is driven into the center-field bleachers. Hodges is the 385th different pitcher to surrender a home run to Bonds. It’s Bonds’s 100th career home run at Pacific Bell Park: a stadium that has been open for less than four seasons.
“To be honest, I’m in shock,” Hodges tells reporters after the game. “I should have almost come to expect it. I’ve seen some weird things the last three days … He’s doing some amazing things, especially walk-off home runs. There’s still a 70 percent chance he’s going to get out, but apparently he’s pretty good in that situation.”
Braves first baseman Robert Fick was a little more to the point: “I hope I don’t ever see fucking Barry Bonds again because I don’t give a shit what anyone says. He’s the fucking best. I’m just so impressed.”
As amazed as the rest of his opponents and teammates are, though, the amazing feats don’t even seem to register with Bonds. “I was just trying to hit the ball, but I’ve got to go somewhere now,” Barry says after the game, desperate to spend time with his father.
As I leave the ballpark, with my father, I’m certain that I’ve witnessed the most amazing anything, ever. Two walk-offs in three nights, when every single person in the ballpark, from the staff, to the fans, to the players on the field, knew that Bonds was trying to put one in the seats. And he did just that. It’s almost as if he wanted the game to be over, so he just ended it. My Bonds-high lasts deep into the night, unable to sleep, my mind racing with images of what I had just witnessed. At 13 years old, all I can do is marvel at the otherworldly skill that Barry Bonds possesses.
Now at 26 years old, not much has changed.
This isn’t just about Barry Bonds, you know. It isn’t about Bonds, it isn’t about steroids, it isn’t about validating a 13-year-old’s memories. It isn’t about the Hall of Fame, or the voters.
This is about baseball. It’s about a sport that’s played on a diamond made of dirt, with leather gloves, rubber bases, and wooden bats. A sport that we love enough for us to build a museum that honors the best that ever played. A sport where a kid and his dad can watch three games of baseball together, while a father watches his son play in his dying days, and everything is perfect. It’s about a game, a game that we share with friends, with family, with 40,000 strangers that we’ll never meet, but for at least nine innings, are the closest friends we’ll ever have. And, in return, it provides us with memories that we hold close to us, forever. Sometimes those moments can hurt to recall, but, when we’re lucky, baseball gives us the kind of memories that make us feel chosen, as if some cosmic butterfly-effect led us to experience those memories, and we were there. We were there.
No museum can ever take these memories away from me, no matter how hard they try. I’ve been fortunate enough to witness a large amount of baseball history in my short life, but nothing will ever be quite the same as hearing the ringing voice of Giants PA announcer Renel Brooks-Moon, dramatically underscored by Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” announce the arrival of a moment that renders every other side attraction of the ballpark useless: “Now batting, number twenty-five, Barry Bonds!”
I watched an athlete dominate a sport like no one else ever has, and my only regret is that I can’t experience it all over again.
Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. We live in an imperfect world where imperfect people can, sometimes, create perfect moments.
It’s Saturday, August 23rd, 2003. Bobby Bonds dies at the age of 57.
Barry misses the next six games, but returns to the lineup in Arizona on August 30th. In his second at bat of the game, he takes Randy Johnson deep for home run number 653. As he crosses the plate, he looks up and points to the sky, just as he does after every home run. But this time, his gaze upwards lingers longer than usual. As Bonds takes the field minutes later, he’s seen wiping tears from his eyes.
Starting with the Braves series, the Giants win 27 of their final 38 games to finish with 100 wins. They easily win the NL West, but fall to the Florida Marlins in the NLDS, Bonds’s final playoff appearance.
Barry Bonds would finish the season with 45 home runs, and would win his third out of four consecutive NL MVP Awards. His OPS for the season was 1.278, and if you insist on shouting “steroids” at that number, then you should take a look at his OPS+, where a league-average OPS (as in, averaging all the other PED users) is normalized to 100. Barry Bonds’s 2003 OPS+ is 231. His career OPS+ is 182, third best all time.
Maybe his steroids were just better than everybody else’s.