Barry Bonds versus Roger Clemens.
The matchup represents one of the most intriguing faceoffs in baseball history; arguably the game’s greatest slugger against one of its toughest pitchers.
The dream matchup became reality April 7. Although it was a Wednesday afternoon and the third game of a long and arduous season, a near-capacity crowd of 42,863 packed Minute Maid Park in Houston in anticipation.
Bonds stepped to the plate in the top of the first inning with two outs and a runner on second, hardly a nail-biting moment in the young season.
Clemens, who has more than 300 wins, more than 4,100 strikeouts and glares from the mound as one of the most intimidating pitchers in history, looked in.
Then he walked Bonds intentionally.
For Mid-Missouri Mavericks manager Jack Clark, a major league player from 1975-1992, therein lies the problem with the major leagues today.
“What fun is it to come to the park everyday and watch them walk him because he’s not surrounded by comparable talent,” Clark said. “If he can hit 100 home runs, let’s see him do it. Challenge him.”
Clark notes Bonds might be the best hitter ever, but Clark, a four-time All-Star, says he is disgusted by what he sees as a lack of toughness from managers today.
Last season, 11 hitters walked at least 100 times, led by Bonds’ 148 (including 61 intentionally). In 1983, two hitters walked more than 100 times.
Bonds walked 177 times when he hit a record 73 home runs in 2001. In 2002, he walked a record 198 times, 68 intentionally. This season he is on pace to walk close to 250 times.
When Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 60, Maris walked 94 times. Mickey Mantle, another of the game’s greatest sluggers, who played for the New York Yankees from 1951-1968, never walked more than 146 times.
“(Don) Drysdale, (Sandy) Koufax, (Juan) Marichal, they all pitched to the great hitters,” Clark said. “They didn’t back down from anybody. I can’t see Bob Gibson going out there and them saying, ‘Walk him Bob.’ He’d look at them and say, ‘Right, guess again.’”
Bill Clark agrees. Clark, the Mavericks’ director of player procurement, spent 36 years as a major league scout before joining Mid-Missouri this spring.
“Bob Gibson would’ve knocked (Bonds) on his butt,” Clark said. “Don Drysdale would’ve turned him around real fast. That was a challenge to pitchers back them.”
Bill Clark, 71, blames the body armor hitters increasingly wear. Jack Clark, 48, who is not related, said pressure to win and a need to respond to media are the main reasons pitchers don’t challenge hitters as often today. He said managers would rather avoid second guesses than give fans what they want to see.
Both agree the game is worse off because of the trend.
“No ownership or anybody has any guts anymore to say, ‘If I throw this ball low and outside and he can hit it up in the seats, or I throw one up here and he can hit it, go ahead and do it.’ Fans want to watch that,” Jack Clark said.
Clark believes the problem has gotten worse this season. When Mark McGwire broke Maris’ home run record by hitting 70 in 1998, he walked 162 times, but only 28 were intentional. Sammy Sosa, who also broke the record by hitting 66 that season, walked 73 times, 14 intentionally.
By comparison, Bonds walked 54 times in his first 32 games this season, 29 intentionally.
“What if everybody had said, ‘We’re going to see the Cardinals and the Cubs’, and every time McGwire or Sosa gets up they walk them,” Clark said. “What about the fans and everybody that came? It’s the drama of the whole thing. That’s part of it. They’re trying to take that drama part out of baseball.”
Former Missouri player Phil Bradley, a Columbia resident who had his No. 15 jersey retired, offers a slightly different take on the trend.
Bradley played in the majors from 1983-1990 with a lifetime batting average of .286. In 1985, Bradley hit .300 with 26 home runs for the Seattle Mariners. Though an All-Star, opponents walked him only 55 times all season. Four were intentional.
“I think pitchers choose to attack hitters differently than they used to,” Bradley said. “They try to use trick pitches. Gibson and Drysdale were power pitchers. They went right at you.”
Jack Clark started his career the same year Gibson’s ended. Clark hit 340 home runs and had 1,180 RBIs. He gained his reputation as a power hitter in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the San Francisco Giants, hitting at least 20 home runs five times when few sluggers hit more than 40.
Despite that reputation, Clark never walked more than 100 times until he was with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987. He walked at least 100 times four of his final six seasons.
As he talked about Bonds, it became clear that, as Mavericks manager, he won’t be intentionally walking the Frontier League’s most feared hitters.
“Have some guts,” Clark said. “Challenge him. Let him do it. … I want to watch Roger Clemens face the best guys. I want to see the best hitters face the best pitchers and see what they do. That’s fun to watch.”