Witness to a Shift in Baseball's Power

The fastball Barry Bonds crushed for his 756th homer doesn't exist anymore.
July 28, 2015

On the night of August 7, 2007, I sat in a beautiful ballpark on the San Francisco Bay and watched as the personification of power in baseball stood at the plate. The fans stood behind him, a full-on throaty roar, curious given that by that point, he was as much chemistry experiment as ballplayer.

For weeks Barry Bonds had trudged around the country in what appeared to be a rather joyless pursuit of one of sports’ most hallowed records, the most home runs in the history of baseball. At that point, the mark was held by Hank Aaron, who thirty-three years earlier had surpassed Babe Ruth, who hit the last of his 714 homers in 1935. There is no more pure and simple representation of power in American sport than the home run, and for generations, Aaron and Ruth served as the ambassadors, even posthumously, of that entity.

This is the kind of stuff that drifts through your mind on a night like August 7, 2007, when Bonds was stuck at 755 homers and came to the plate to face a journeyman left-hander for the Washington Nationals named Mike Bacsik. I was, at that point, the beat writer assigned to cover the Nationals for The Washington Post, a task that was largely filled with documenting the travails of players no one knew then and no one remembers now.

Yet that night was memorable, and to this day I remember so much about it. Bacsik is the son of a pitcher and a student of the game, and in the days leading up to his assignment—when Bonds was marching to the record, and the Nationals were scheduled to play in San Francisco—he seemed to revel in the chance to be a part of history. Before the Nationals headed west, I asked Bacsik about the prospect, and he brought up Al Downing, the old lefty who yielded Aaron’s 715th homer. Downing was remembered. Maybe Bacsik could be, too.

There were and are, of course, all the debates about the legitimacy of Bonds’ accomplishment, given his indictment on perjury charges pertaining to his testimony in the case against a California lab that was accused of supplying steroids to all manner of athletes. When Bonds sent a floating Bacsik fastball into the sky, the 756th homer of his career, that entanglement circled the bases with him—and it stays with him still, because he has not been voted into the Hall of Fame.

But the Nationals, on the receiving end of history, seemed not to care. Felipe Lopez, the shortstop thatnight, told me afterward he got goosebumps as Bonds ran by him. Brian Schneider, the catcher, sought out photos of himself behind the plate when Bonds swung. Bacsik handled the moment with grace and became an oddball star. It was the power of power, right there in front of me: baseball players in awe of one of their peers, putting aside the means to the end.

What I didn’t know at the time, and what perhaps I could not have known, was that that night served as something of a pivot point for an entire sport. The “fastball” Bonds hit was a fastball in name only, a pitch hurled without the intention to break or tumble or curve. It registered at 86 mph.

Last year, on the final day in September, I walked into Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City for an American League wild-card playoff game between the host Royals and the Oakland Athletics. It was, more than eight years after Bonds closed baseball’s Steroid Era, an indication of where the power in the game stands at the moment.

The Royals entered those playoffs having hit fewer home runs that season than all but two teams since 1996. Indeed, in 2000, at the height of the Steroid Era, baseball produced more than two-and-a-quarter homers per game. By the end of the summer of 2014, that number had fallen by more than a quarter—half a homer per game.

Yet the Royals’ power came from different sources, and in an odd way I found it as jaw-dropping as Bonds’ display eight years earlier. Here came one relief pitcher whose fastball averaged more than 96 mph. The next reliever’s fastball averaged more than 95 mph. And that was just a hair behind the closer, who approached 96 mph—on average.

In those eight years, baseball had undergone a transformation. The power, as we head toward another postseason, now lies with the pitchers. Bonds’ final season was that year he broke the record, 2007. Every year since, major league pitchers—on average—have thrown the ball harder. Every year since, the game has set a new record for strikeouts.

The Bacsik “fastball” I saw Bonds crush that night? It scarcely exists anymore. There is still power in baseball. But it lies now on the mound, not in the batter’s box, and can be appreciated in a much different way.

Svrluga ’93 has worked at The Washington Post since 2003 and is now the national baseball writer. He recently wrote his second book, The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season (Blue Rider Press, 2015).