(Barry Bonds drew his 2,063rd career walk last night, moving into second place on the all-time list, ahead of the great Babe Ruth. In honor of this achievement, Zembla reprints an old essay from the 2001 season, when in the midst of trying to break Mark McGwire's old record of 70 home runs, Barry quietly approached the single-season walk record, which he would later shatter in 2002.)
Amid all of the home run hoopla, with front page updates on Barry Bonds' hitting statistics, and the "Bonds vs. Gonzalez vs. McGwire" section of ESPN.com, another important offensive record is within Barry's reach. It's older than McGwire's record, older than Maris', and even older than the Babe's sixty home run season. I'm talking, of course, about the single-season walk record.
Back in 1923, Babe Ruth, the Prince of Patience, the Baron of the Base on Balls, walked an astonishing 170 times. Since then, only a few players have even come close to equaling the Babe. McGwire set the National League record back in 1998, the same year he broke the home run record. McGwire walked his way down to first 162 times that year, a fairly amazing walk-per-game average. Only Ted Williams has ever walked even 162 times, and he did it twice. Barry set the old National League record with 151 back in 1996, when Matt Williams broke his foot and Barry's lineup "protection" consisted of such sluggers as Glenallen Hill, Bill Mueller, Steve Decker, and Jay Canizaro. Career-wise, Rickey Henderson is the career leader, passing the Babe this year, but never walked more than 126 times in any single season.
The Babe is #2 on the career charts, and Williams is right behind him. With the five years Williams lost to the war, he might have ended up with 2,600 career walks or so, making him nearly uncatchable. As it is, he's #3 all-time. Barry is, not surprisingly, the highest active player not named Rickey Henderson on the list. He's eighth all-time, likely to pass Mel Ott for seventh place later this year, and, barring injury, could become the all-time leader by mid-2004. This year alone, he's moved up from 13th place, passing some luminaries (Stan Musial and Harmon Killebrew), some less-than-amazing players (Darrell Evans and Ed Yost), and one convicted tax cheat/ compulsive gambler (Who do you think?)
Right now, Bonds is on pace for 163, which would break the National League record. He's walked six times in the past two games, making him a serious threat to the record. If he heats up the walk engine like he did in June (averaging nearly two walks per game), Barry is a serious threat to the record. I'd like to see this story start to get some serious coverage. I want a walk counter on the right field wall at Pac Bell. I want Major League Baseball to fly in Ruth's surviving relatives to Giants games if Barry gets close. I want to hear Dusty Baker complain in post-game press conferences about how pitchers are "refusing to pitch around Barry."
This is how I imagine the quest turning out. Barry has 70 homers and 170 walks on the last game of the season. The Giants need to beat the Dodgers to clinch the division title. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, score tied, bases loaded, Barry comes to the plate. He stands stock-still as a 3-2 Jeff Shaw fastball comes in just a centimeter off of the outside corner. I'd like to think that Barry would still take the time to remove his elbow guard before slowly trotting down to first base, as the crowd and his teammates go wild.
I just hope Barry doesn't start wearing a hat that reads "W.K." for "Walk King," a la Pete "Hit King" Rose. Whatever the result, I'm rooting for Barry to pass Big Mac - and rooting nearly as hard for him to pass the Babe.