Lessons from the Barry Bonds Era

by Dr Lefty

Tonight one of the most iconic players in San Francisco Giants history gets his number retired with much pomp and circumstance at AT & T Park. This is as it should be. The Hall of Fame candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are discussed every year ad nauseum. No need to rehearse the arguments here. But as to Bonds’s place in San Francisco Giants history, there should be no debate, and the Giants get to make up the rules for their number retirements and their Wall of Fame. It is right and proper for #25 to be officially retired at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.

 

The Bonds legacy

Who remembers where you were when you heard that Bonds was signing with the Giants, who had been newly rescued from moving to Tampa Bay by the Magowan/Baer/Burns/Johnson group?  (When do those guys get their numbers retired, by the way? They’re heroes in my book.) I do. It was a Saturday night, and we were in our living room in the tiny little duplex that was our first home purchase, watching ESPN Sports Center, and they broke the enormous, shocking news that not only were we not losing our beloved Giants, but we were also getting the best player in baseball. Mr. Lefty turned to me and said, “[Lefty.] BARRY. BONDS.”

I don’t really want to get into the moral dilemmas that rooting for the Giants and Bonds posed as we got into the excruciating latter days of Bonds’s career and his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s home run record. I don’t much want to remember how I took my Giants paraphernalia down in my office at Sac State in the mid-00s because I was just tired of having to defend my lifelong fandom to every single person who walked in or even by.

Today I just want to remember how doggone fun it was to watch Bonds do his thing for 15 years in a Giants uniform. How he ran around on top of the Giants’ dugout at Candlestick, celebrating and cheerleading, the day they clinched the 1997 NL West title–his first postseason as a Giant–and as the Fox announcer bellowed (at 2:52 on this video) “Who says Barry Bonds doesn’t care?!”

 

So many other moments. The video of him celebrating as they won the 2002 pennant, sending him to his first and only World Series. The weekday game we took the kids to on the Larkspur ferry, where to our disappointment we found that Bonds had the day off–and as the Giants headed into the bottom of the ninth, trailing, I insisted that we start making our trek back to the ferry at the opposite side of the park. Bonds hit a tying pinch-hit homer and the game went into extra innings, but we’d already exited the park, so too bad for us. The younger Lefty Jr., then just eight years old, screamed. “I hate you!” at me. (She needn’t have bothered. By then I hated myself.) The outfield assist/walk-off homer on his 39th birthday in 2004.

In honor of the occasion, Sports Illustrated compiled its favorite Bonds home runs. See which ones you remember.

 

What the Bonds era can teach us today

Walking down memory lane yields both cautionary tales and inspiration for today. See what you think.

  1. Short-changing your farm system to build around veteran stars is a risky strategy. Sometimes it works. The aging 2002 Giants won the NL pennant and very nearly won the World Series. The 2010-11 Phillies were old–older than the 2018 Giants–and they won a lot of games. But then there were the 1994-96 Giants and the 2005-08 Giants. Yes, that latter stretch of futility resulted in the top-ten picks of Lincecum, Bumgarner, and Posey, but that kind of payoff doesn’t happen reliably or even all that often. By comparison, in the same stretch, the Tampa Bay Rays drafted Longoria and Price, and then in 2008 could have drafted Posey but didn’t. How many championships have the Rays won? Just because you suck doesn’t mean that your resulting lottery picks are going to lead you to the Promised Land. (See Warriors, Golden State, for about 25 years before they drafted Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.)
  2. Building a team around a mostly unlikeable superstar isn’t a good long-term strategy. If PJ were here, he’d be screaming that I’m “slappy” and only like defense. That’s not what I’m saying. I loved watching Bonds put a charge into one. I raised my kids on it. Those are great memories. But it’s hard to get other players to want to come to a team and stay if the superstar is difficult and everything around him is a sideshow. Is that a cautionary tale about throwing all the money at Bryce Harper?  Maybe.
  3. Things can change quickly. The 1997 Giants went from worst (in 1996) to first (in the NL West in 1997). The 2017-18 Giants are not likely to duplicate that feat, but there has been progress. Yes, it’s slower and more frustrating than we would like sometimes. But if the Giants end up at .500, that would be a 17-win improvement over one year. That’s not nothing. They have six rookies on their roster right now (OK, seven if you count Pierce Johnson, but I don’t think he’s staying long), and there may be more (Chris Shaw? Shaun Anderson? Tyler Rogers?) before the year ends. While saying “we’re not rebuilding,” the Giants are quietly doing just that, at least somewhat. That’s different than “blow it all up” (trade Bumgarner, trade Belt, trade Crawford, trade Posey, etc.), but the Giants are playing youngsters, and that’s a clear move towards a reset button. As the Fox announcer said at the beginning of the clip above, “Do you believe in Dustiny?” (OK, that’s not really a teaser that I think Dusty Baker is going to replace Bochy, but…)
  4. The best way to build fan loyalty (and make money) is to put a successful, entertaining product on the field. When the Giants moved into AT & T Park and Bonds was at his peak, they sold out every game for several years. The 2000 Giants won the West, the 2002 Giants won the NL pennant, and the 2003 Giants won the West. They were good–not perfect, but good–and they were fun to watch. But then 2004 started the decline, and in 2005-08, they were flat-out awful. The fans stopped coming, and the new sellout streak didn’t start until late 2010. That streak ended in the latter days of the horrible 2017 season. Attendance and ratings have declined steadily over the past year. Trust and interest are easy to lose and hard to win back.

I don’t regret the Bonds era and don’t want to forget it. That’s why I’m glad that when we go to the game tomorrow, we’ll see #25 up with the other retired numbers. He belongs there. With all his warts and flaws, he’s a Forever Giant.  This is a nice photo (except good grief, RF and CF look like crap. $%#&^ rugby).

 

The other two “retired” numbers

From Alex Pavlovic:

The numbers 18, 25 and 55 are highlighted in orange and have a designation of “hold.”

The Giants will officially retire Barry Bonds’ 25 on Saturday night, and it’s unlikely any player in orange and black will ever again wear the numbers made so popular by Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. This is the “unofficially retired” numbers list, and after Saturday, it will consist of just two numbers.

“It’s kind of an unspoken thing we have here,” said Brad Grems, the clubhouse coordinator.

Just me talking: No one else will ever wear #28 or #40 after Posey and Bumgarner are done being Giants.

 

Tonight’s game

After last night’s rather strange slugfest and today’s festivities, we’ll have what amounts to a bullpen game for the Giants.

Pirates at Giants, 6:05 p.m. at AT & T Park (some would say “The house that Bonds built.”)
Trevor Williams (9-8, 3.88 ERA) vs. Ty Blach (6-6, 4.28 ERA)

 

Should be a memorable evening, at least before the game as “Bonds stands alone,” and hopefully during it as well. Enjoy it and see you on the comment board. Lefty out.