August 2, 2010

The Home Run MLB Doesn't Want You to Remember



The cat was out the bag on October 20th, 2002 at approximately 11:53 pm central daylight time. In a sudden enlightening moment, we the sports fans realize we had been duped. Naively oblivious to the strange game baseball had become. As long as it remained exciting, the fan turned his cheek. Nothing was suspicious about every single season home run record being smashed between 1998 and 2001.

That was until Barry Bonds dug into the batters box in the 9th inning of Game 2 during the 2002 World Series.

There was something odd about Barry Bonds in 2001 and 2002. Already an all time great, Bonds had made a stylistic change to his approach in his late 30’s. At an age when players typically became more scrappy and less powerful, Bonds had bulked up and become a left handed power hitter that could absolutely crank anything out over the plate.

Bonds choked up, strapped an armored plate on his right elbow and stood on top of the plate. Pitching inside was out of the question with his protected elbow hanging out over the inner edge. Bonds was a damn good hitter and a patient one at that. Rarely did Bonds chase anything out of the zone. His batting eye was unmatched in the history of baseball. The combination of patience, increased power and out-of-this-world natural ability gave us the perfect storm.

You simply could not pitch to the man. Any mistake over the top half of the zone Bonds would pull into the Pacific Ocean.

In Game of Shadows Bonds' bat was said to have a metallic sound in spring training 2001.  The unique sound of ball hitting bat stopped grizzled baseball veterans in their tracks.

“What in the world is that?”

“It’s Bonds. He really hit the weights this winter,” was the general reply.

Bonds swung a big stick. 33 ounces of black maple. Swung it hard.  With the bat speed he generated, collision between bat and ball was unusually violent. The moment of impact sounded like a tree snapping in two during a tornado.  Bonds could whip that bat through the strike zone with unreal speed. Always making perfect contact. Never swinging at bad pitches. The blend of natural ability and strength was at its apex. Baseball had not seen a monster like this before.

The trajectory of Bonds’ home runs was fascinating.  The ball disappeared, leaving behind a puff of dust. Ball exited park at a rapid, low flying line drive that gained altitude.

Bonds home runs were a marvel of physics, but on October 20th 2002, with one pitch and one swing, what we were seeing was no longer real.

Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.


It was a perfect night in southern California on October 20th 2002. 72 degrees. Slight breeze from the west. Edison Field sparkled under the bright lights of the World Series. Anaheim held a 11-9 lead heading into the top of the 9th and was poised to tie the series.  Most of the country was in bed as the clock approached 1 am eastern on this Sunday night.

 Angles closer Troy Percival entered the game and prepared to face the Giants 2-3-4 hitters (Aurilla, Kent and Bonds, three accused steroid users).

Joe Buck and Tim McCarver comment matter of factly about the number of long balls in the post season. Nothing was unusual, this is how baseball was, with the blindfold about to be removed.

Percival shut down Rich Aurilla with a quick two pitch at bat getting him to fly out to left field. Jeff Kent stepped to the plate and the ominous figure of Barry Bonds cast a long shadow in the on deck circle.

Fox camera’s zoomed in on the hulking Bonds as Kent fouled off the 0-2 offering from Percival. Bonds stood motionless.  An out-of-style crucifix earring dangled from his left earlobe. His head appeared too big for the helmet he wore. A massive chest ready to burst the buttons off of his jersey.

Kent hit a short fly ball that was easily handled by Angels left fielder Garret Anderson.

Up marched Bonds who was a ridiculously dangerous hitter in 2002. The choice was yours. Walk Bonds or give up a home run.

If you took a chance by pitching to Bonds, the probability of a giving up a HR was at its absolute highest.

In the 2002 World Series Bonds reached for nothing.  Of the 112 pitches he saw during the six game series, 39 were strikes.  Bonds swung at 25.

Leading by two runs and with no one on base, the Angles would take their chances with Bonds.  Managers often strategize around the worst case scenario. With Bonds at the dish, the worst case scenario was reality.

Bonds bore in on the inner half of the plate as he awaited the first pitch from Percival.  The inner half belonged to Bonds. Might as well not challenge him there.

Percival's first pitch missed the zone as Bonds didn’t even bother to follow the ball to the catcher’s glove. His eye so impeccable he instantly senses location.

What happened next was akin to someone telling you that your life had been make believe for the previous 5 years. Everything you thought to be true, was a lie.

Barry focused intensely on Percival as he prepared to face the second pitch. His eyes unblinking. The bat gently waving behind his back shoulder. Arms in perfect position to uncoil a swing on any mistake over the plate. On the second pitch from Percival, during the 9th inning of an almost out of reach game that mistake came.

Bonds turned on the Percival fastball, catching it on the meaty part of the bat.

Arms fully extended. Hips, shoulders and wrists all working in perfect sync to create the most viscous swing ever unleashed in the 130 year history of baseball.

The ball rocketed unlike anything seen before, behaving like a golf ball hit with an aluminum bat.

Bonds had sent the pitch into orbit.

It exited so quickly that cameras didn't pick up the ball as it soared into the exosphere. 

The herky-jerky camera shot gave the impression that Bonds hit the ball so hard, the human eye couldn't detect it. As of 2013, the baseball has never landed. It most likely still orbits Earth.

Bonds started towards first watching the ball disappear into the distance. His typical home run trot began with him walking the first several steps. On this night it was different. He broke out into an almost sheepish jog.

Percival turned and scanned the upper deck for remnants of the ball. Fox microphones picked up Angels outfielder Tim Salmon gasping in horror and saying “That’s the furthest ball I ever saw hit.”

Tim wasn't alone.

This HR was different.  Something wasn’t right. A baseball isn’t supposed to fly like that.

Barry Bonds was supernatural.


Footnotes :

*MLB.com has swept this moment under the rug. Sure it was a fairly meaningless moment in a game the Angels won in the next at bat, but I thought it was so remarkable it’s at least worth taking a second look at.

*Video of this home run exists on MLB.com but is somewhat hard to come by. I’m stealing a line from Bill Simmons here but it fits so perfectly I have to use it. “Major League Baseball doesn't allow online clips -- and really, why would they want fans to enjoy the history of the game online?

*I have somewhat of a conspiracy theory when it comes to Bonds’ game two home run. It was so ridiculous and so unnatural that Bud Selig held an emergency late night meeting in Los Angeles that night. During the meeting he says that Bonds is out of control. He’s now able to hit baseballs so hard that they challenge the laws of physics. He phones ESPN and tells them to replay the home run only once and to write it off as a meaningless play. The focus of SportsCenter that night must be the Angles victory. ESPN execs agree. Selig hopes that with time memory of this home run will fade. Now if only the entire steroid era could just fade away as well.

*Bonds’ power hitting was so amazing during that World Series people often confuse the home run that never landed in game 2 with the OTHER monster home run he hit in game 6 off of K-Rod. The only real difference is that you can actually see the game 6 home run land and bounce down a tunnel in right field. MLB.com even provides a free link to the game 6 home run but barely acknowledges the game 2 home run with video evidence. Hmmmm.

*Let me spit some stats at you, Trent Ryan style.

Look at some of the all time records Bonds broke during the 2002 World Series.

Reached base 21 times in 30 plate appearances.

Only made 9 outs the ENTIRE series

.700 OBP all time record for a World Series .625 was previous record. Remember a .450 OBP is considered good.

Walked 13 times in 7 games. 7 times intentionally.

8 for 17 .471 4 HRs

Slugged 1.294 previous record was .913

Still only one World Series MVP vote. Voting a player on the losing team MVP is a discontinued practice.  This was one time an exception should have been made.
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