It goes without saying that Barry Bonds is one of the most controversial players in the history of sports. This, of course, goes back to his use of steroids, which is generally agreed to have started after the 1998 season. This has put everything from his historic home run record to his Hall of Fame candidacy in question.
However, even though every statistic he put up after 1998 can and should be called into question, he could’ve gone to Cooperstown before any of that.
The legend of Barry Bonds began at Arizona State University. There, he performed so well to the point that he was selected sixth overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1985 draft. After a season in A ball where he had an OPS above .900 and two months in AAA the following season where he did the same thing, he was called up to the majors permanently on May 30, 1986.
In his seven seasons with the Pirates, Bonds was merely good by his standards. However, combined 427 combined home runs and stolen bases during this time were more than upper echelon hall of famers Willie Mays (421) and Ken Griffey Jr (325) during their first seven seasons. On a value basis, Bonds was also spectacular, as his 50.1 rWAR in Pittsburgh exceeded that of Hank Aaron (46.7) and Rickey Henderson (44.1) during their respective first seven years. Needless to say, Bonds was on a Hall of Fame trajectory at this point, and his case only improved after he signed with the Giants.
In December 1992, Bonds became the highest-paid player in baseball, signing a six-year, 43.75 million dollar deal with the San Francisco Giants. Then Giants owner Peter Magowan said following the signing that, “It’s a lot of money, but there’s only one Barry Bonds,” a statement that would ring true for the years to come.
From 1993 to 1998, Barry Bonds seemed to exist on another planet, putting up another 49.6 WAR, this time in just six years, putting him at 99.7 in his career. This total of 99.7 would have made him the 20th best position player of all time by that metric. In terms of his counting stats, he reached 411 home runs by the end of the 1998 season, better than Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Larry Walker were able to in their entire careers. There was no reason for Bonds to start taking steroids after 1998, he still would have reached 500 or 600 home runs, and he would’ve still likely been a top 10 position player of all time, but he did.
The superhuman performance of Bonds in the early 2000s is well documented, as is his use of steroids to do so. However, many tend to disregard what he did before all of that, and as such his hall of fame candidacy has largely been a question of how legitimate those early 2000’s seasons were.
However, this is a massive misinterpretation, steroid use doesn’t discount the natural achievements of Bonds or any other player. In Bonds’s case, he was a baseball legend before any of that, and despite what he did in the later part of his career, he should be treated as such.