It’s difficult to know if the San Francisco Giants think they should retire Barry Bonds’ number because they think he won’t be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, because they think it might minimally boost his chances, or just because they recognize the debt they owe him, but the decision to depart with tradition for his sake makes perfect historical sense.
In short, he defines a clear and distinct era in Giants history, as John McGraw did 100-plus years ago, as Mel Ott did, as Bill Terry did, as Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal did, and as Buster Posey and and Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval and Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean do now.
And as there is not yet a plan in place to retrofit the left field stands to retire a replica of Bochy’s skull, that means that Bonds’ turn happens now, for whatever reason.
In doing so, the Giants break their own protocol of retiring only the numbers (or initials) of Hall of Famers. Indeed, of the 187 retired numbers in baseball, only 39 are of non-Hall denizens, or barely 20 percent.
But Bonds’ number represents, both good and ill, more than 10 percent of all Giants history, and if you believe that the idea of commemorating history means commemorating all of it, then Bonds’ jersey must be retired. Not because he was a fan favorite necessarily (you can have a dandy CalTrain fistfight over that one at your leisure), but because he was the indisputably central figure of the ‘90s and ‘Oughts, spanning both the end of Candlestick Park and Name That Telecommunications Company Stadium.
True, there are fan favorites in a lot of cities that got their jerseys retired for sentimental reasons – Minnie Minoso in Chicago, Ted Kluszewski in Cincinnati, Willie Horton in Detroit, Frank White in Kansas City, Junior Gilliam in Los Angeles, Kent Hrbek in Minnesota – as well men who died while still in service to their teams either contractually on in memory – Jim Umbricht in Houston, Dick Howser in Kansas City, Jose Fernandez in Miami, Johnny Oates in Texas.
But Bonds is in a smaller group of non-Hall of Famers, with Billy Martin and Gil Hodges and Pete Rose, whose jerseys were retired simply because the history of the team does not stand without them. And for an honorific like this, that reason is as good as any.
And maybe it helps him bridge that final one fifth of the Baseball Writers Association of America. I mean, it probably won’t sway a lot of minds – the Giants put on a full-court media press for an entire year to get Orlando Cepeda approved by the Veterans Committee when his writers eligibility ran out – but the Giants clearly made whatever peace needed to be made with the thornier sides of the Bonds ethos some time ago, and his number is the last step to take before commissioning a stadium statue of him.
And the rest of the potential motives don’t matter at that point. Because when you want to say you appreciate and are indebted to an employee, nothing short of a plaque in upstate New York says it like bronze.