Initially, my team was the Phillies. I remember watching parts of the ’83 World Series between the Phils and O’s as my dad and grandpa (he has 2 favorite teams – the Orioles and whoever’s playing the Yankees) were repairing our stove or refrigerator in the kitchen. I would have been 7 at the time and this is about the earliest actual MLB memory I can come up with.
My dad and I would go with friends or family to a handful of Phillies games throughout the mid-80’s. I had a nice little collection of “free to fans under 14” handouts including a Tastykake John Denny mitt, a Velcro wristband watch, and a Larry Anderson Halloween mask. I was all decked out in my Phillies gear.
Following that ’83 season, Juan Samuel joined the team as the everyday 2nd baseman. I liked Samuel’s speed and base-stealing ability. His 72 steals in ’84 was a rookie record and the most by any Phillie, post 19th century.
Since I found base-stealers and speedy players to be the most exciting, I slowly began learning about Rickey Henderson of the New York Yankees. I remember reading about the “Bronx Burner” in Sports Illustrated (from 1986). I would catch the occasional Yankee game on Saturday afternoon TV, where I would see Henderson wreaking havoc as the game’s best lead-off hitter. I was slowly tuning out the Phillies and tuning in to the Yankees. Thankfully, my grandpa still let me sit at the Christmas dinner table.
But just as I was becoming a full-fledged Yankee fan, New York shipped Rickey Henderson back to the Oakland A’s. For some reason I hated the A’s and there was no way I was going to root for Rickey in Oakland (where he would soon break the MLB record for stolen bases in a career, sans steroids thank you). I was in team limbo.
At this point, I continued pulling for the Yanks, paid a little attention to the Phillies again, and also started noticing a Braves team that, while lousy, was always on TV. This team featured recognizable veterans such as Dale Murphy, Lonnie Smith and Gerald Perry, and also a mix of young players like Albert Hall, Tom Glavine and Ron Gant. TBS dubbed Atlanta “America’s Team” and I was slowly buying into it.
During the 1990 season, I gradually became a Braves convert. More young players surfaced, such as David Justice, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. But it was Ron Gant who I really started rooting for. Again, he was a player who could burn up the basepaths. But Gant added an equally effective threat of homerun power. During the ’90 season, Ronnie accounted for 32 homeruns and 33 stolen bases, and introduced me to the mystique of the 30/30 club.
In 1991, I pledged full support to the Atlanta Braves. Conveniently enough, they transformed their 1990 sixth place finish into an NL West pennant. Awaiting the Bravos in the ’91 NLCS were the Pittsburgh Pirates. In their ugly yellow and black Buck-o unis were Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and … Barry Bonds. Bonds had an excellent ’91 season and came into the playoff series with much notoriety. He was a top-5 base-stealer and the Pirates best all-around player. The season before, he was NL MVP and a member of the 30/30 club. He was the closest thing the enemy had to Ron Gant.
Looking back at that series, it sure was a different era. Three 1-0 games, 4 shutouts, and 4 games decided by 1 run during the 7 game series. Ron Gant hit 1 of the series’ 8 total homeruns in Game 3. He stole 7 bases throughout the series. Bonds? He did swipe 3 bags, but also produced a paltry .148 BA, crossed home plate only once, and drove in zero runs. A performance as hideous as the uniform he was wearing.
Then in 1992, the same teams met again in the NLCS. This one went the full 7 as well, but saw just as many crooked numbers on the scoreboard as close games. Despite hitting 2 homeruns in the series, Ron Gant followed a poor regular season with a poor playoff showing, hitting only .182. Barry Bonds posted improved numbers from the playoff series a year earlier, but still fell short of the MVP effort he produced during the regular season. During the series, he hit .261, scored 5 runs and belted one homerun. And with Atlanta trailing 2-0 in the last half of the 9th inning, a 3-run rally was capped with a Bonds throw from left field that arrived at home plate after Sid Bream’s cleats. The Braves won again.
Obviously, I wasn’t much of a Barry Bonds fan at that point. My distaste increased following the ’92 season when he signed with the San Francisco Giants. At the time, I probably held loyalty to one’s team with a little higher regard, and I felt Bonds bailed on a successful team in favor of cash. These days, it’s foolish to expect anything different, but I was a 16 year-old kid.
In his first season by the bay, Bonds’ transition into an annual top-5 homerun hitter culminated with his first NL homerun crown. He belted 46, which was the highest single-season total in the 1990-1995 NL window. Once again, his season would end at the expense of the Braves. The Dodgers 12-1 win (too bad I can't find Barry's line) on the final day of the season over San Francisco placed the Giants 1 game behind first place Atlanta.
Following the 1993 season, Ron Gant broke his leg in a motorcycle accident. He was cut by the Braves and was not on a roster to open the 1994 season. I still cheered on the Braves, who were trailing the Montreal Expos throughout the year. However, the games just weren’t the same without old #5 ripping countless foul balls into the left field stands.
Then came the strike. Count me among the many who tuned out baseball for more than a few years following. I was beginning college and working on the weekends and during the summer months, so I just didn’t devote much time to baseball in the mid-90’s. With the Eagles always being of interest, and Pippen and the Bulls running through the NBA, the Braves just kind of took a back seat.
Following the strike, it was evident that the long-ball era was well underway in the American League, and the senior circuit wasn’t far behind. The excitement that speed and base-stealing provided was nearly non-existent, as league leaders were lucky to total 50 on the season – a far cry from Rickey’s record 130 in 1982. As Greg Maddux famously stated in a commercial, “Chicks dig the long-ball” and the 30/30 club was no longer a cool place to hang.
Needless to say, this trend wasn’t as appealing to me as it apparently was with other post-strike fans. Eight NL players topped the 40 homerun benchmark in 1996. In ’97, Larry Walker of Coors Field fame missed the 50 HR plateau by only one. And then in 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire captivated the baseball world by launching 66 and 70 homeruns respectively, improbably shattering season-high marks that stood for decades.
I still wasn’t interested. Maybe if I had been, I would have connected more emotionally with what really had just happened. Hallowed MLB records were falling to players who obviously were benefiting from performance enhancing supplements (to put it kindly). The excitement of these record-breaking efforts resulted in fan support the game hadn’t seen in years, maybe decades. Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.
Anyway, as the world ushered in a new century, I was finally ready to get back to baseball. No more working weeknights and weekends, I had some time to tune in. Among the factors for my revived interest was the fact that the Braves amazingly enough had won their division every year since I initially converted. Throw in the fact that Ron Gant was playing for Mr. Dietrich’s Phillies, who were one of the Braves’ up and coming division rivals. Enough compelling developments were presented for me to take the plunge.
Well, even though Ron Gant was off to the AL by midseason (to join Rickey Henderson in the AL West), the 2000 season wasn’t too bad. The Phillies fell flat, but the Braves kept winning. And despite the fact that no one stole bases anymore, Andruw and Chipper Jones provided excitement by each scoring and driving in over 100 runs. Familiar faces on the pitching staff, crafty veterans Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux combined for 40 wins that year. Sure, the Braves bowed out of the postseason in the first round, which was certainly a trend at that point, but it was good to be a fan again.
Then in 2001, as I was attempting to enjoy the spark Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles were providing the Braves, and see if the resurgent Phillies could break Atlanta’s hold on the division, the baseball world was again revolving around another assault on the record books. Grumpy old (36), albeit curiously bulky and well-armored, Barry Bonds was socking long-balls left and right. Well, mostly right… and into the bay. His torrid pace had the 3 year-old single season homerun mark in jeopardy, and legions of fans treated it as something of a coming out party for Barry Bonds. After 73 homeruns in all, Bonds was “the man” and quickly up for consideration as the greatest baseball player of all-time.
Of course, I was no Barry Bonds fan. I, like many fans, had my suspicions as to whether he was using those same “supplements” that most people at the time figured McGwire and Sosa and countless MLB players had been using. It seemed like every weekend cookout or basketball tournament that year eventually led to talking about Bonds, baseball and steroids. Did it matter? Did they make him a better hitter? A better homerun hitter? I’ll maintain the argument that I made then that more muscle will add length to fly balls hit to the outfield, ultimately giving routine fly balls the chance to pass the fence. So yes, it mattered!
Fast-forward through 5 more division wins for the Braves; 5 years of me appreciating baseball for what it is and always has been; and 5 years of Barry Bonds adding to his career homerun total, and here we are at the beginning of the 2006 season. Bonds has 708 career homeruns, 48 away from breaking the Homerun King Hank Aaron’s record.
I do have a great deal of resentment towards all of this. Players chose to cheat and the system that outlined what constitutes cheating chose not to enforce its policies. A silly investigation into steroids is underway by MLB - an investigation that includes Barry Bonds’ past, but should rather focus solely on the greed of the MLB front office’s past. As much as I would like to negate some of the power-hitting related accomplishments of the last decade, I do believe what’s done is done.
But, the career homerun mark is a big deal. It’s a bigger deal than the single-season marks that were topped in cartoon-like fashion. And while I think he’s a jerk and “just don’t like him,” forget my 23 years following the game. For Hank Aaron’s record to fall to Barry Bonds this season or next would be a grave disservice to the 130 year history of baseball.
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