Who won this clash of the titans?
As you might have heard, the two most prominent new names on the Hall of Fame ballot this year are Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. If this is a revelation, then I can only assume you are new to this sport we call baseball, in which case, may I be the first to say, "Welcome!" The appearance of the greatest pitcher and hitter of their era on this ballot got me wondering how often Bonds had faced off against Clemens, hombre a hombre, staring at each other with steely malice across the short distance of 24 paces like two duelists, settling matters of honor.
Well, not to suck all the life out of the room, but as you can imagine when considering two players who were in the same league for only three seasons, it did not happen very often. In fact, they met on only four separate occasions, preseason excluded. They are these:
July 7, 1998 - All-Star Game: After both being in the majors for more than a decade, Mssrs. Bonds and Clemens finally came face to face in the bottom of the third inning of the Mid-Summer Classic. Clemens had taken over for David Wells to start the frame, and things were not going smoothly. A bases-loaded, two-run single by Tony Gwynn had given the Nationals a 2-0 lead with one out. Clemens recovered to whiff Mark McGwire, which brought up Bonds with two men out and runners on the corners. Bonds flied out to left to end the inning. The Americans recovered for a 13-8 victory.
July 10, 2001 - All-Star Game: Clemens started for the American League and got the game going in the top of the first by getting Luis Gonzalez on a pop-up and striking out Todd Helton. He closed the inning by inducing Bonds to ground back to the mound. The Nationals would eventually fall 4-1, extending their losing streak to five games.
June 9, 2002 - Giants at Yankees: Sixteen years after Bonds entered the big leagues, the two finally met in a regular-season game, and a psyched-up crowed of 55,335 came to see this historic showdown ... And it was just like that time Nolan Ryan challenged Bo Jackson with nothing but fastballs, right? Uh, no. As Ira Berkow wrote in The New York Times, "Rough, tough, take-no-prisoners Clemens wimped out." This was at the height of the Walking Barry Era, and Clemens and the Yankees did not shy away from jumping on the bandwagon. Bonds would eventually set the single-season record for intentional walks in 2002 with 68 (a record that would nearly double two years later).
With two out and nobody on in the top of the first, Bonds walked and would eventually score on a wild pitch. Clemens plunked Bonds in the third inning (again with two outs and nobody on) and was ordered to walk him intentionally in both the fifth (one out, man on second) and the seventh (two outs, man on second). These last two took place with the Giants holding a 2-1 lead, which they would cough up in the bottom of the eighth. Bonds would bat in the ninth with two outs and a man on first, representing the tying run. This time, though, he was facing Steve Karsay, who, after running the count to three balls, was ordered to send him to first, free of charge. The Yankees prevailed 4-2. Clemens got the win with a 66 Game Score. Bonds' box-score line was the rare (for a player with five plate appearances, anyway) 0 1 0 0.
April 7, 2004 - Giants at Astros: For the first time in history, a pitcher with 300 wins squared off against a batter with 600 homers and, in their first encounter of the day, Clemens let such a momentous occasion be damned. With a runner on second and two out in the top of the first, Bonds was issued an intentional pass. It was the second of the 120 he would get that year (it being just the third game of the season), a record that will still be standing thousands of years from now when the Earth is ruled by a race of highly evolved silverfish. Clemens escaped the inning unscathed and had a 4-0 lead when Bonds next batted again, this time leading off the top of the 4th. Finally, Clemens challenged him and the result was a strikeout of the called variety. Clemens retired the next eight batters, bringing Bonds up to lead off the seveth. By now, the score was 5-0, so there was no reason for Clemens not to challenge Bonds. The end result was much the same as it had been in the fourth, a called third strike. Clemens retired his last two batters and hit the showers, running out a line of 7 1 0 0 3 9 for an 81 game score as the Astros prevailed, 10-1. Bonds was lifted prior to his last turn at the plate, finishing his day 0 for 2.
And that's it. The two greatest and most controversial players of their age faced off nine times. Bonds failed to get a hit, but reached base five times. Clemens' teams won all four games.
What is our takeaway from this? Probably that baseball continues to thrive in spite of an inherent construction that does not always guarantee premier match-ups.