In 2008, former Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Barry Bonds nearly returned to Pennsylvania, but not for the Pirates, or a MLB team for that matter
Barry Bonds: he’s easily baseball’s most notorious anti-hero. He’s probably brought more excitement to the game than any player ever has, but he did it in a way that many would disapprove of. Regardless of your opinion of Bonds, there’s no denying that he is the best power hitter of all time.
Bonds started his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team with whom he spent the first seven years of his MLB career and was drafted sixth overall by in1985. While he became an all-star in Pittsburgh, he became a legend in San Francisco. But at the end of his career in 2007, Bonds was blackballed from the MLB. But he had a chance to return to Pennsylvania, not with the Philadelphia Phillies or Pittsburgh Pirates, but with the Frontier League Washington Wild Things.
The Washington Wild Things are a team I personally hold near and dear to my heart. They’re the first professional baseball team I ever got to see play because they’re a whole lot closer and easier to get to than the Pittsburgh Pirates and PNC Park. My family held season tickets to the Wild Things in the early 2010s, and I got an opportunity to intern with the organization this past summer. However, they were the last team to offer Barry Bonds a professional baseball contract.
Bonds hadn’t played for a PA team since 1992, his last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That season, he slashed .311/.456/.634 with a .459 wOBA and 198 wRC+. Bonds belted 34 home runs and swiped 39 bags en route to an MVP award, the second of his career and the second of a record-setting seven MVP awards. Bonds was easily the best player in the league in ‘92, leading the MLB in fWAR by a 2.2 margin. His 198 wRC+ was 23% better than Frank Thomas, and his wOBA was 27 points better than Thomas. He was also the only player to swipe 30 or more bases that season and swat 30 or more home runs. Defensively, he more than held his own with the leather, racking up +6 total zone runs.
That was in 1992. Fast forward to 2007, and Bonds is a 42-year-old who has nothing left to prove in baseball. He holds the home run and RBI record, the single-season RBI record, and has drawn more intentional walks than Roberto Clemente drew in general (both intentional and unintentional). Bonds’ last season in the big leagues was still an MVP-worthy performance. He batted .276/.480/.565 with a .428 wOBA , and 157 wRC+. Only Bonds could bat below .300 and still put up an OBP approaching 50%. That’s because he drew a total of 132 walks in 477 plate appearances. Max Muncy and Joey Votto drew 160 walks last season but in a combined 1125 plate appearances.
Bonds was still arguably baseball’s best hitter. He ranked sixth in wRC+, seventh in wOBA and third in OPS. Bonds’ 27.7% walk rate was the second best of his entire career. The only other season he drew more walks on average was in 2004. His insane walk rate was 7% better than second place; however, his 11.3% strikeout rate ranked top 50 among hitters. He also ranked eighth in isolated slugging percentage, only being outdone by Carlos Pena, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, David Ortiz, and Adam Dunn.
It’s pretty amazing that no major league team was willing to take on Bonds’ potential PR issues, a man who still drew 43 intentional walks, so they could get MVP-caliber production in the line-up. But the last team to offer Bonds’ a professional contract was the Washington Wild Things, which would mean a return to the state Bonds started his career in.
Now it was going to be a big step down from the luxuries of the major leagues, but Bonds would still get many more amenities than the average Frontier League player. He would have gotten the maximum monthly salary a Frontier League player could have gotten in 2008, which was $1.2K, along with performance bonuses for breaking records, something Bonds could have easily done. He also would have gotten a king-sized hotel room to himself. Now the average fastball in the Frontier League today is likely somewhere between 86-89 MPH, so it also would have been a big step down in velocity for Bonds.
Bonds turned down the Wild Things’ offer, but it honestly would have been fun to see Barry Bonds make Independent League pitchers look silly. The former Pittsburgh Pirates two-time MVP would have easily broken multiple Frontier League records as he was still at the top of his game despite 2008 being his age-43 campaign. Hero, villain, anti-hero, whatever you want to call Barry Bonds, his career is a legacy to behold, for better or for worse. His time with the Pittsburgh Pirates will never be forgotten, and his return to the state he started his MLB career with would have been an interesting sight to see had he decided to give it one more go.