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Bonds Becoming Ageless Wonder

Giants' star turned 40 in July, but he still hits homers at a prodigious rate, an anomaly when compared to great sluggers of the past.

September 01, 2004|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

For Frank Robinson, who is fifth on major league baseball's home run list with 586, the reflexes were the first to go.

"They're just not there, the hand-eye coordination," the Montreal Expo manager said, recalling the difficulty he had hitting home runs as he approached the age of 40.

"To me, hitting is seeing and reacting. When you get older, it's cheating and reacting before you see it."

For Dave Winfield, who hit 465 home runs during a distinguished Hall of Fame career that ended in 1995, when he was 43, it was his vision.

"There were some pitches where you'd say, 'Oh, man, how'd I miss that one? How did this chump get that ball by me?' " Winfield said. "You've got to have that hand-eye coordination, and when you reach 40, your eyes change. When I stopped playing, I got a thorough checkup ... and I needed glasses."

Life may begin at 40, but not for those who make their living bashing baseballs over outfield walls.

Hank Aaron, baseball's home run king with 755 homers, hit 20 home runs when he was 40, then slipped to 12 when he was 41 and 10 when he was 42. Babe Ruth, who slugged 714 home runs, hit only six after his 40th birthday.

Willie Mays, fourth on the all-time list with 660 homers, dropped from 18 homers as a 40-year-old, to eight as a 41-year-old and six as a 42-year-old, his skills having deteriorated rapidly by 1973, his final year with the New York Mets.

Robinson hit 22 homers when he was 38 but fell to nine at 39 and three at 40. Mark McGwire, with 583 homers, retired at 37; Harmon Killebrew, with 573, didn't make it to 40, and Mike Schmidt, 548 homers, hit only six as a 39-year-old and was batting .203 when he tearfully announced his retirement in May 1989, four months shy of his 40th birthday.

Former Detroit Tiger slugger Darrell Evans hit the most home runs in a season by a 40-year-old, 34, in 1987. Carlton Fisk hit the most homers of anyone after 40, 72, but he needed more than five seasons to get them.

Most major leaguers begin to fade as they approach 40, but aging power hitters, with their long swings, slowing reflexes and increased susceptibility to injury, seem even more vulnerable to the ravages of time.

Unless your name is Bonds.

Barry Bonds.

The San Francisco Giants' left fielder is an anomaly, a slugger of prodigious home runs who turned 40 July 24 and has shown no signs of slowing.

Bonds, who needs four home runs to become only the third player in baseball history to hit 700, leads the National League with a .368 average and has 38 homers and 88 runs batted in this season. His walk-to-strikeout ratio (185 to 29), on-base (.607) and slugging (.821) percentages are off the charts.

Bonds turned 37 the year he set the single-season home run record with 73 in 2001. He hit 46 homers in 2002, the year he turned 38, and 45 in 2003, the year he turned 39.

Bonds' swing is still short and compact, and generates more than enough bat speed. His vision is still sharp -- not all those walks are intentional -- and his command of the strike zone is unrivaled.

"He doesn't swing at a pitch unless the ball is in a certain area, and he rarely misses it," Angel batting instructor Mickey Hatcher said. "He's unbelievable. No one knows the strike zone like him."

Bonds has not been on the disabled list since 1999, remarkable considering he has not had the luxury of the designated hitter, a role that has amounted to a golden parachute for some aging sluggers.

"I know Barry pretty well; I know what he does," Winfield said. "He pays attention to his diet, his food consumption, his nutrition. I don't know his training regimen specifically, but he works out rigorously.

"He's dedicated, and I don't think he'll leave anything in his tank when he's done, but when you hit 40, you don't know when a physical ailment might derail you. What's phenomenal is, he's still playing outfield, he's not a DH, and he still has to do a lot of running."

Few question Bonds' work ethic or mental toughness and he has excelled in recent years, despite the lengthy illness and subsequent death of his father in 2003 and the swirling speculation of performance-enhancing drug use during his assault on baseball's home run record.

Bonds has gained 40 pounds since 1996, going from 190 pounds to 230, and his childhood friend and former personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is at the center of a federal investigation of the Burlingame-based Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, which has been accused of illegally distributing steroids.

BALCO founder Victor Conte reportedly told Internal Revenue Service agents during a September raid of his company that he furnished steroids to Bonds. Conte's attorney said his client's remarks were misinterpreted, and Bonds has denied using steroids.

"Just accept it," Bonds told the Contra Costa Times in July. "There's no mystery. There's no scientific explanation. There's no tricks. There's no nothing. It is what it is. One day, people will appreciate that. Maybe one day they will understand. There's no gimmicks to what I do on the field....

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