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Gagné v. Bonds v. Ohtani v. Trout ?

Whichever showdown you prefer, baseball wins

Dodgers v Giants Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

It’s been a couple of days and the baseball world is still buzzing about the World Baseball Classic final culminating in the Shohei Ohtani - Mike Trout match-up.

The at-bat has been compared to one near-and-dear to not only San Francisco Giants fans hearts, but fans of the game: the Eric Gagné - Barry Bonds showdown that took place nearly two decades previous.

It seems fool-hardy, a little click-baity of me to try and discern which at-bat between the two is “best.” Can fans not just enjoy both for their similarities and nuances? Can they not just both be? The answer is a-thousand-times yes. I’m not here to let the air out of the bouncy-castle like some pundits—both at-bats were/are incredible, compelling, rewatchable.

If someone demands you choose, play it safe, reasonable—pull both ABs to your breast and dramatically proclaim: “How can one choose? For love does not divide but multiply!”

At the heart of both of these at-bats is the natural drama in the confrontation between pitcher and batter. It’s baseball at its most primal, most atomic. Stone vs. stick. Each of these clashes is elevated to a heavyweight level because who is throwing the stone and who is holding the stick.

The Eric Gagné against Barry Bonds was backed with hardware, ordained and even predetermined by the Baseball Writers of America: 2003 National League Cy Young against 6-time National League Most Valuable Player. The icing on the cake for fans is that both are representatives of division rivals—this specific at-bat, like every other at-bat between Giant and Dodger, carries the accumulated weight of a century-old rivalry.

But this might be a strike for some fans in this specific debate. In the 9th inning on Friday April 16th, 2004 was the first time Bonds and Gagné had competed as minted peaks of their respective crafts—but the two had faced off before in previous seasons, and they would face each other again. The confrontation wasn’t necessarily rare. That night was their 15th confrontation. In 17 career at-bats, Bonds hit .294 (about his career average), struck out 5 times, and intentionally walked four times, only homering once.

What makes this at-bat “rare” is the fact that Bonds was actually pitched to. He walked 232 times in the 2004 season, 120 of those clearly intentional. With a 3-run lead in the 9th and only one runner on, it wouldn’t have made sense for Gagné to not-pitch to Bonds—but the strategic norms were pretty much out the window when dealing with the Giants outfielder at this point in his career.

It always kind of made sense to not pitch to Bonds.

But oh boy did Gagné pitch to Bonds. The Dodgers closer in mid-April seemed to be in midseason form—his pitch “stuff” was the stuffiest, his location pinpoint. Bonds came up to the plate wanting to make the appearance brief—to prove a point, yes, but he also didn’t want to get in a hole against someone like Gagné.

Take the first pitch of the at-bat: a 98 MPH fastball tailing towards the outer-half of the plate that Bonds jumped all over, pulling it down the first baseline. He turned out of the box, stuck out his tongue, thinking he just missed it. You better believe Gagné read that body language, took umbrage as all competitors do and responded by cruising another 98 MPH heater but this time inside, hip height. Bonds sucked in his gut as the ball ran back in, nicking the corner of the plate: 0-2. Power and finesse.

Gagné showed Bonds his back, Bonds didn’t leave the box—it was on.

With the inside and outside of the zone established, Gagné almost stole strike 3 with a divey backdoor slider that had him skipping off the mound towards the LA dugout and Bonds jumping out of his cleats. A palate cleanser followed: a triple digit heater that missed at the letters in. 2-2.

Another fastball elevated just enough for Bonds to foul it off behind him. Still 2-2.

The legend goes that during a couple years previous a gentleman’s agreement was made between Gagné and Bonds that the next time they faced each other, Gagné wouldn’t use his Vulcan change-up in the meeting. If either one was going to beat the other it was going to be with power. Was the agreement made in jest? Did either player take it seriously? Was Bonds able to jump on the fastball because the off-speed was off the table? Or was the bet more gamesmanship and mental chicanery to keep Bonds off-balanced, second-guessing himself, or complacent?

I imagine in that moment before the 6th pitch as Gagné walked around the mound he was debating whether he should uphold his end of the deal. A heavy change-up would’ve been the pitch to throw in that situation.

Maybe he’d already made up his mind not to use it, and, staring towards home, rubbing up the ball at the back of the mound, the intent of Gagné’s pause was to give Bonds the opportunity to wallow a shake longer in that uncertainty. Second guess himself: Do I trust this guy? Or is he about to pull the string on me? Gagné the bespectacled French-Canadian Dirty Harry: Do you feel lucky?

On the rubber, Gagné shook once, held the ball a beat, then unleashed a 101 MPH fastball inside that Bonds pulled—somehow—into McCovey Cove…foul.

Mike Krukow: “Wow.”

If extraterrestrial life came down from earth and asked me to tell me what hitting was, I’d show them that foul ball over the home run, and they’d shudder with understanding.

If we sutured Ted Williams’ frozen head to a body and zapped it back into cognition and locomotion and showed him that swing, he’d cluck his tongue and shake his head, saying: “There goes the greatest hitter who ever played the game.”

Was the 7th pitch a white flag after what Bonds did to the 6th? It looks like Gagné shook again—presumably the change-up—before serving up the worst pitch of the at-bat. After nibbling at corners, expanding the zone, changing Bond’s eyeline, he served a high 90’s fastball to an acclimated Bonds down mainstreet. From where I’m sitting, two decades on, it looks like a towel. Or had the tension of the at-bat risen to such a degree that all Gagné could see was red? His mind wiped of anything but heater. The confrontation had become a game of chicken—neither was bailing off the tracks.

After all that, Eric Gagné still had a one-run lead and closed out the win for the Dodgers.

It’s incredible that an at-bat stripped of any in-game stakes or seasonal consequence of any kind is still discussed, still cannon-balling in the waters of the baseball consciousness. It’s the Platonic form of the pitcher-batter duel.

But baseball is not played in a vacuum. The Shohei Ohtani - Mike Trout at-bat is boosted heavily by its context. This ain’t no April game…it happened in March! I jest…I jest… But I’ll be honest, at the start of this tournament, I didn’t really care about the World Baseball Classic.

The tournament has definitely struggled a bit with its identity. A global stage for some countries’ teams and players, while others in the MLB an afterthought, a warm-up for the regular season, or unnecessary risk. That may have changed after this spring’s tournament. Historians will cite the final at-bat between Trout and Ohtani as the reason the World Baseball Classic snowballs in importance internationally and domestically. There are 12 year old groms at their local park in Santa Ana right now pretending to be Ohtani and Trout—not in game 7 of the World Series, but the WBC Final.

The Ohtani-Trout at-bat was also backed with hardware and fueled by fanfare and hopeful expectation. Both players were recent recipients of MVP trophies, the captains of favored nations in the tournament, and teammates. The confrontation between the two was a dream partly it had never happened before, and the fact that the dream became reality in a Casey-at-Bat scenario to claim the tournament was…well, it was impossible to not be giddy about the universe aligning in such a way. It felt scripted. It felt inevitable. Trout as one of the greatest players of all time and Shohei Ohtani as a unicorn in pinstripes in the process of reinventing the game in his own image like the second-coming of Ruth—the personnel was there with talent that transcends annual leaderboards and awards.

Barry Bonds is certainly worthy of being mentioned amongst Ohtani and Trout. Excuse me…Trout and Ohtani are certainly worthy of being mentioned amongst Bonds, but is Gagné? He was excellent, his 02-04 seasons superb, but he is not a cultural touchstone of the sport. It seems like a ridiculous standard to judge a player on, but these are the hairs you split when you argue about the greats.

As I rewatch the WBC at-bat, it’s more and more clear that the showdown was dictated on Ohtani’s terms. There was no see-saw of power as there was in the Bonds-Gagné tete-a-tete. Ohtani’s hands are on the scales. In the first at-bat between opponents, the advantage skews towards the pitcher. No matter how familiar Trout is with Ohtani’s work having played behind him in centerfield or hit against in batting practice or spring training, trying to discern fastball-slider in split-seconds let alone make contact with it, let alone do damage to it, is a tall order in a game situation. An element of the scenario’s shine comes from its newness—but is it also hurt from it?

We don’t get normal Mike Trout in this showdown. He strikes out a lot but he rarely gets blown away.

Trout doesn’t make contact with the baseball once. He shows off a discerning eye by not jumping at the first pitch sweeper that falls out of the zone—but Ohtani yanks the third pitch for ball 2 and overthrows the fifth for a 102 MPH ball 3. Easy takes.

And Trout’s first two swinging strikes are center cut, challenge fastballs that he’s deposited beyond fences all over the country before. Yes, they’re coming in at 100 MPH and probably appear to jump 20 feet from the plate when they don’t break—but would Barry have missed the first one, let alone the second?

What elevates Ohtani’s performance is the punch-out pitch. It really was/is/and will continue to be spectacular. It’s the best pitch of the at-bat and compared to Gagné’s (the running fastball for called strike 2), I think it takes the cake. Expertly located, beautifully shaped—the full count slider is a fastball on the inner half of the plate for 45 feet until it creates its own weather system, grows horns, and Tasmanian devils across the plate and out of the zone. An un-hittable pitch a hitter has to swing at. A pitch that wins championships.

My friend Stu asked: If Trout takes, does the ump call it a strike? I think yes—the ball breaks through too much of the zone, and it looks like it grazes the outside of the zone anyway. The real question: Is there a reality in the multiverse in which Trout doesn’t swing at that pitch?

Ohtani-Trout. Gagné-Bonds. Both at-bats are baseball at its best.