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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

The Giant Debate

With Bonds set to pass Mays on the all-time home run list, the arguments will continue to heat up as to who is/was the better all-around player

September 26, 2003|Ross Newhan

It is inevitable that Barry Bonds, needing only three home runs to catch Willie Mays at 660, will surpass his godfather at No. 3 on baseball's all-time list.

If it doesn't happen during this final weekend of the regular season, it will happen next April, when the emotional burden of his father's recent death might not hang so heavily on Bonds. Then, only Babe Ruth at 714 and Henry Aaron at 755 will be ahead of him.

The question is, can he truly catch and surpass Mays, or is the home run list one thing and their comparative stature another?

Do we salute Bonds as one of the great hitters of all time but still envision Mays as the Say Hey Kid who could do it all?

"There is no comparison when it comes to being the complete player," said former Dodger shortstop Maury Wills, who shared the National League landscape with Mays. "Willie was the most complete player I ever saw, and that's not to take anything away from Bonds, who continues to be one of the most dominating hitters I've seen.

"They're just two different types. Bonds is a slugger. Mays was a ballplayer. The ultimate. My longtime friend Bobby Bragan ... always said that if you gave a baseball test to a player and he simply answered Willie Mays to every question, he'd be certain to pass."

It is a general theme among those fortunate to have had a prolonged view of both that Mays was the personification of the complete player, maybe the finest ever, while Bonds may be emerging as the greatest hitter.

Certainly, no player has ever turned his twilight years into a full-fledged assault on the record book as the 39-year-old Bonds has.

He slugged 73 home runs for the single-season record at age 37 while also setting a slugging percentage record of .863, hit .370 to win a batting title at 38 while also setting an on-base percentage record of .582, and has now hammered 44 homers this year and 212 since 2000, the season in which he turned 36.

All of this amid a decreasing number of at-bats because of an increasing number of walks -- in-tentional and otherwise. He set a major league record by drawing 198 last year and should eclipse Rickey Henderson's career mark next year, a feat Henderson dismisses.

"They're putting Bonds on base intentionally," Henderson said. "They intentionally tried to keep me off because of what I could do once I was on."

No matter how Bonds is accruing them -- and he has been walked intentionally with a runner on first base and walked intentionally with the bases loaded -- it adds up to getting "more respect than any hitter I've ever seen," former Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe said.

"Whether that says he's better than Mays or Aaron or some of the best hitters of my generation I'm not sure," Newcombe said. "I've just never seen a hitter shown this much respect. I never saw [Bob] Gibson or [Don] Drysdale or any of the other great pitchers have the respect for a hitter that pitchers and managers now do with Bonds."

A large measure of that stems from the consistency with which Bonds makes pitchers pay -- his home run ratio this year is one every 8.6 at-bats -- when he is not walked.

Some of it also stems from the limited protection behind him and the expansion-diluted but swiftly improving caliber of pitching in the major leagues.

Whether the staffs Mays faced were better than those Bonds has faced -- "you have to remember that there were four-man rotations then compared to five now and the No. 5 can't be better than the No. 4," former Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi said -- it's also all relative, Bavasi added.

"I don't think anyone could throw, run, field and hit with Willie, but Bonds is as good with the bat as anyone I've seen," he said from his La Jolla home.

Bavasi recalled that Mays was such a complete player and immediate thorn to the Dodgers as the New York Giant center fielder that when the Selective Service board was considering a hardship deferment for him, he sent a good-natured wire to director Lewis B. Hershey suggesting that the Dodgers would contribute $5,000 a year to help Mays support his family if the Army retained him.

Bavasi laughed and said Hershey wired back, "Sorry, Buzzie, I'm a Giants fan."

Mays had those 660 home runs and 3,283 hits and record 7,095 outfield putouts even though he lost almost two full years to the service and innumerable homers while playing amid the distorted dimensions of the Polo Grounds in New York and the numbing wind of Candlestick Park.

Bonds also spent seven seasons in Candlestick, and most left-handed sluggers consider his new lair, Pacific Bell Park, a home run graveyard.

Noted teammate J.T. Snow recently: "Barry is the only left-handed hitter alive who is strong enough and talented enough to keep a ball hit down the line at Pac Bell fair."

Bonds, of course, isn't most, and neither was Mays, and maybe we should leave it at that.

Maybe we should be satisfied that Bonds' ascent has stimulated a reexamination of Mays' fabulous career.

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