For the record, I want to say that I love Barry Bonds. He’s perhaps the best hitter in baseball history and, unless you’re an anti-PEDs fanatic, the home run king of baseball. I got the chance to listen to Bonds at the annual SABR convention in July, and he was delightful, funny, and had tremendous insight. He seemed genuinely sweet. Also, I would have paid real American dollars to watch him and Ichiro go toe-to-toe in a home run derby. When he was fired last week, I was sad, because I think Major League Baseball is generally better and more interesting with Barry Bonds in the game.
And there’s no doubt that some Marlins hitters had good seasons under his tutelage. Marcell Ozuna bounced back from an awful year to reestablish himself as one of the best young center fielders in the game. Christian Yelich added power to an already well-rounded offensive game. J.T. Realmuto, Derek Dietrich, and Justin Bour also had good offensive seasons and showed signs of improvement.
That said, Bonds’s reputation as a divisive presence on teams and in the media was well-earned. In his playing career, he feuded with teammates (some of whom, themselves, were prickly), pissed off managers, and ignored reporters almost as well as he hit bombs. And Marlins hitters, despite the gains made by some of them, still finished 13th in runs scored.
So it isn’t really much of a shock to find out what caused the schism:
Donnie Baseball would not have stayed on as manager if Bonds returned -- one MLB coach told me.— Kevin Kernan (@WheresKernan) October 3, 2016
Of course, Bonds’s presence on the coaching staff wasn’t Mattingly’s choice to begin with. Like most bad ideas that involve the Marlins, this one came from the mind of Jeffrey Loria, who personally invited Bonds to be the hitting coach of his team before hiring his new manager. Naturally, Mattingly wasn’t super excited about that idea. CBS Sports’s R.J. Anderson did some additional digging and found out that “Mattingly’s problem with Bonds reportedly had to do with declining work ethic.” If that’s true, well, there’s no doubt that Bonds deserved to be fired.
And it wouldn’t be a shock. Not because Bonds was lazy when he played, but because often the best players make mediocre teachers. Indeed, it’s those innate abilities makes it difficult to convey how to improve to their students. Consider Ted Williams as the manager of the Senators and Rangers. Or Rogers Hornsby managing the Browns. Guys like Mark McGwire or Tony Gwynn, who earned a great deal of praise for their ability to coach, are the exception, rather than the rule.
It’s not their fault. After all, who receives the greatest amount of coaching at the professional level? Clearly, it’s the players who need the most help. Coaches will often leave players alone when they’re going well, and great players don’t generally need to be tweaked. Meanwhile, guys like Mike Maddux and Ray Searage were exposed not just to different strategies to improve as players, but different styles of coaching. It’s their crappiness as ballplayers that works to their advantage as they search for ways to get through to the next generation of marginal talent.
Meanwhile, a coach like Bonds, naturally confident in his own abilities, having never failed at anything, would undoubtedly be less likely to watch the film and put in the work required to be a great coach. Indeed, it sounds like Mattingly vastly prefers the work done by assistant coach Frank Menechino, a barely passable second baseman who had one year in the majors where he got more than 350 plate appearances.
The question, then, is what will become of Barry Bonds? The all time great will probably disappear again for a few years, satisfied to have more time to go biking. He doesn’t need baseball, and baseball has already shown once that it’s happy to exist without him. He may try this again in a couple years. And hopefully, should that happen, he gets the chance with a manager who wants him and with players he actually wants to take the time to coach.