When you’re trying to win a baseball game, you probably shouldn’t pitch to Barry Bonds. That’s the conclusion Buck Showalter reached on a Thursday night twenty years ago. The Arizona Diamondbacks franchise was playing its 53rd game ever and 4th ever against the Giants. Their very first win in team history came against the Giants, in fact, and Barry Bonds had not hurt them at all (2-for-12, 1 run scored, 1 walk, 2 strikeouts). He didn’t even start this historic game, entering instead as a pinch hitter the inning before.
But Buck Showalter knew that Barry Bonds was “the greatest hitter of his generation” as you’ll hear in this clip from the broadcast.
If you’re new to baseball, it used to be that when a manager wanted to intentionally walk someone, their pitcher had to actually throw the four non-strikes to the catcher. This new way of simply awarding the batter first base without any pitches thrown is, I think, better, but in this particular case, it certainly heightened the moment. We might not have gotten this expression from Bonds, for instance, had he simply been given first base.
Anyway, Buck Showalter made a tough decision for the right reasons and it worked out in his favor, and it was all because Barry Bonds was already the best hitter of his generation. Thanks to this move, the Diamondbacks won their 17th game of the season (17-36 overall), and became a part of the Bonds legend.
In the entire history of Major League Baseball, a player has been intentionally walked with the bases loaded only six times:
Abner Dalrymple (Chicago Cubs) | August 2, 1881
Nap Lajoie (Philadelphia A’s) | May 23, 1901
Del Bissonette (Brooklyn Dodgers) | May 2, 1928
Bill Nicholson (Chicago Cubs) | July 23, 1944
Barry Bonds (SF Giants) | May 28, 1998
Josh Hamilton (Texas Rangers) | August 17, 2008
Hamilton’s IBB came against the Tampa Bay Rays. Joe Maddon made the decision, so you can be sure
he was copying he was “paying homage” to the 10-year anniversary of Showalter’s call.
But Back to Bonds and what this meant for Major League Baseball. Here was a manager, albeit the manager of an expansion team, deciding that the best way to handle one of the best players currently playing and perhaps to ever play the game, was to take the bat out of his hands and not let him be a deciding factor in whether or not his team won or lost.
At this point in 1998, Mark McGwire had already hit 25 home runs. Sammy Sosa had hit 13. The rest of the season would be dominated by their dual pursuit of the home run record, and Barry Bonds’ Hall of Fame career path (by the end of this season, he’d have 411 home runs, 445 stolen bases, 1,917 hits, and a .966 OPS in 8,100 plate appearances) wouldn’t be anywhere close to entering the national conversation. The most notable thing that would happen to him this season was the intentional walk. And then he’d lose to Sammy Sosa in a 1-game playoff.
In that game, he came up with the bases loaded in the both the seventh and ninth innings and only managed a sac fly in the latter appearance. For being the greatest hitter of his generation, 1998 was a season of baseball ignominy, and it all started right here. This intentional walk with the bases loaded was a shocking sign of great respect, but the game humbled him at every point after.
You might be able to draw a straight line from this moment to Bonds’ decision to go the PED route, because it’s only human nature to know you’re really good at something, have others verify that belief, and then crave the high that comes with reinforcing it. If I’m the greatest hitter of my generation, then why aren’t they treating me like I am?
For one moment before the turn of the century they did and it wound up turning him into the greatest hitter of all time.