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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Baseball Deserves to See Bonds Aim for Warehouse

June 13, 2004|Thomas Boswell | Washington Post

Pitch to him. Come on, Orioles, pitch to Barry Bonds.

Otherwise, the spirit of Babe Ruth, whose family home ("Ruth's Cafe") was located in what is now center field of Oriole Park, may be displeased. You've heard of the "Curse of the Bambino." If Ruth's hometown Orioles don't give Bonds, the only hitter worth comparing to Ruth, an honest chance to play the game properly this weekend, who knows what Babe'll do?

The great San Francisco Giant slugger came to Camden Yards for a three-game series that started Friday night. It might be the only time he ever plays in Baltimore. According to the Orioles, it's unlikely the Giants will visit them again for at least five years. Bonds, who will be 40 in July, has a bad knee and could retire any season. Unless he becomes an American League designated hitter, this is the only time Oriole fans will get to see the only truly Ruthian player in the last 70 years.

Although the Orioles may overlook it, everyone around baseball knows that Barry and the B&O Warehouse have an appointment with history. The majestic warehouse is among the sport's most memorable landmarks, but it has never been hit on the fly by a home run during a game. Yet, at 439 feet down the line, it's no farther from Barry's bat than McCovey Cove in San Francisco, which Bonds splatters with balls so regularly that kayakers await his every at-bat with nets.

With juiced balls in an all-star home-run contest, Ken Griffey hit the warehouse. In batting practice, Jay Gibbons and others are said to have done it, but never in a game. And what about those inviting second-floor windows? Who but Barry deserves a chance to shatter one? Don't be wimps. Pitch him tough, like you would Ruth himself. Nibble the edges, change speeds, buzz him off the plate. But, unless the situation dictates that you would walk Ted Williams or Willie Mays, then give Barry his chance.

Sometimes the truth hurts: The Orioles are not good enough to put their interests on the field ahead of their fans' memories. And -- this just in -- the Orioles aren't going to win the World Series this year. They've finished under .500 for six years in a row. Though improved on paper, they're still under .500 on the field. They may well have a future. But the most interesting thing in the Orioles' present -- the most interesting event, perhaps, in their entire '04 season -- is Bonds's visit.

What a disgrace if batting practice is the main event of the series as Bonds's appearances are reduced to intentional and semi-intentional walks. What will Oriole fans, especially devoted season ticket holders, remember about this summer in 10 years except Bonds? If the names were changed and we were talking about Ruth, Williams or Mays, would we want to summarize the weekend's events by saying, "At $45-a-pop for a box seat, the Orioles walked him eight times in 12 at-bats"?

Bonds has hit 16 homers in just 122 at-bats but has been walked a disgusting and amazing 82 times -- that's 40 percent of his plate appearances. His pace: 233 walks. Oriole brass, along with Manager Lee Mazzilli, should put their heads together to cook up a reasonable compromise: if the game's not on the line, pitch to Bonds. If the Orioles do this for their fans, they deserve praise because, in the convention-ridden game of baseball, it will take guts. The Orioles have the worst ERA in the AL. They can't get the bad hitters out. Cynics will say, "Why not just send your kid pitchers to the mound with a suicide note?"

After all, most of baseball echoes the words of Arizona Manager Bob Brenly when he came to Baltimore this week. "It's Barry's own fault for being so good," Brenly said. "There is no upside in pitching to him. He has absolutely killed us the last four years. So we've learned. He makes us pay every time we pitch to him. We don't care who is up next. Whoever it is, it's not Barry.

"If the Giants are way ahead or we're way ahead, we'll pitch to him. Otherwise, no. If he can tie the game or give them the lead with a home run, then we'll walk him."

This means that, with the bases loaded and a four-run Arizona lead, the Diamondbacks would walk Bonds, even though it would force home a run and bring the potential go-ahead run to the plate.

"I even get booed at home now," Brenly said. "I tell people, 'It's not our job to push Barry to the home-run record.' "

But Bonds isn't making just one career trip to BankOne Ballpark.

What baseball has witnessed over the last four years, as Bonds has gone from a superstar to a peer of Ruth, is a reevaluation that has swung too far.

The game has gone from respect to awe to fear to cowardice. And it's a travesty. When Bonds hit 73 home runs in '01, he was walked at a rate of 187 times per 162 games. In '02 and '03, it was a walk rate of 224 and 184 times per 162 games.

Astronomical, but comprehensible. This season, we're off the chart: 266 walks if Bonds played every game.

Ruth once walked 170 times and was passed once a game in his prime. Williams had five years with more walks than games. So there's precedent. However, a third of Bonds's walks now are over the line. Most baseball statisticians say that walking Bonds in every at-bat is counterproductive -- though not by a lot. Bonds has not yet gone over the line at which he is too good for the game. Since he hasn't, his walk totals this year call the judgment and sportsmanship of the game into question. Of course, Barry's personality, until recent years, may have played a role, too. Is he paying for being an arrogant grouch during parts of his career?

This week, Mazzilli sidestepped the Bonds issue saying, "We'll do whatever helps us win the game."

A young team that's trying to rebuild its self-respect isn't going to do it by hiding under the bed when Babe comes to town.

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