Every so often a story will reach the newspapers about somebody so old, the codger could make even Willard Scott's jaw drop, somebody who remembers those nutty Wright Brothers, horseless carriages and complete games. Actuaries and statisticians have a term for such people. They're outliers. They don't fit into the standard deviation. They render actuarial tables irrelevant. A similar phenomenon can happen in baseball, as in the cases of Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez, who in two smashing months have sent sabermetricians scrambling for record books.
Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' leftfielder, is hitting home runs at a rate some All-Stars can't match against cupcake-tossing coaches in homer-hitting contests. Through Sunday more than one out of every five balls he had put into play (26 of 112) had gone out of the park. He got to 26 home runs quicker than anybody else in history (in the Giants' 50th game), including Mark McGwire (52nd game) in his record-busting, 70-homer 1998 season. Bonds's sixth of the season, on April 17 off Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Terry Adams, was the 500th of his career.
What makes no apparent sense about this career-best power display is that on July 24 Bonds will turn 37, an age when Mickey Mantle, his closest statistical twin, was finished and most players' best years are well behind them. The average age of the 16 other 500-home run hitters when they belted their career high in homers was 29. Bonds is on track to easily surpass his high of 49—set last season. A dizzying run of 11 homers in 10 games that began on May 17 at Pro Player Stadium against the Florida Marlins and continued through Sunday at Pac Bell Park against the Colorado Rockies had opponents describing Bonds as "the best player I've ever seen" ( Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones), "the best player in the game" ( Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd) and "a guy that you fear as soon as you see him on deck" ( Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa).
May 30 marked the 15th anniversary of the day Bonds, a wiry leadoff hitter then, broke into the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That date also was the 29th birthday of Ramirez, the Boston Red Sox DH. Ramirez's production has been so prodigious that he could make a run at two of baseball's most revered milestones: a .400 batting average (last accomplished by Boston's Ted Williams in 1941) and the major league single-season record of 191 runs batted in (set by the Chicago Cubs' Hack Wilson in '30). Ramirez has such a nose for RBIs that when he bats with runners in scoring position, it's like watching Tiger Woods standing over a two-footer. The accolades for Ramirez include "the ultimate RBI guy" ( Boston catcher Scott Hatteberg), "the freak" ( Boston centerfielder Carl Everett) and "scary, because he's just getting into his prime" ( New York Yankees manager Joe Torre).
So what do you call an age-defying power hitter who chokes up on the bat and a hitting savant who bats with his hands slightly spread? They are outliers. These guys are off the charts.
Despite the paces they are on, Bonds and Ramirez reject the notions that they can break, respectively, the home run and RBI records. Bonds even disputes that he has evolved into purely a home run hitter, though his slugging percentage—a major-league-leading and otherworldly .918 at week's end—is on the rise for a fourth straight season; he had only 11 singles among his 47 hits this season; he had slugged 41 homers in his past 87 games; and every at bat is an event that keeps even the full-bladdered welded to their seats with excitement.
"Barry is different now," says San Francisco second baseman Jeff Kent. "He's swinging at more pitches and being more aggressive. [Six of Bonds's 26 homers had come on the first pitch of an at bat.] When he goes to the plate, everybody is watching. We all know how hard it is to do what he's doing."
The 6'2" Bonds was listed at 185 pounds when he joined the Pirates. He gained muscle over the years, most noticeably before he arrived at spring training last year, as the result of an intense new off-season strength-training regimen. His 49 home runs last year were three more than his previous career high, set in 1993, his first season in San Francisco after signing as a free agent. The Giants list him at 228 pounds this year.
Many players add power as they age, but this much this late in a career is unusual. Hank Aaron is the only other member of the 500 home run club to hit his career high in homers after age 34. Aaron was 37 when he belted 47 in 1971. McGwire, with 65 in '99 at age 35, is the oldest to hit 50 or more in a season.
Always known for his fast, compact hitting stroke—no one devours inside fastballs better-Bonds has lost none of his bat speed while gaining strength. He's a lethal pull hitter who punishes the overshifted defenses he usually faces by driving balls through (and over) them. In the middle of his National League-record nine homers in six consecutive games with at least one homer in each game, Bonds, when asked for an explanation, replied, "Some things I can't understand right now. The balls I used to line off the wall are lining out [of the park]. I can't tell you why. Call God. Ask Him. I try to figure it out, and I can't. So I stopped trying."