In baseball, Pedro Martinez is the current player most capable of putting a team on his back and leading it to victory on a given day. But even he cannot pitch every day, and even he cannot win unless teammates score at least one run.
Sluggers? Even Mark McGwire, perhaps the greatest the game has known, can be rendered almost harmless if opponents refuse to pitch to him. In baseball, you can only hope your best players come through when their opportunities arise.
And every manager that has taken Barry Bonds into the playoffs is still waiting for that to happen.
Because it is a team game, it is unfair to place responsibility for the San Francisco Giants' latest playoff failure solely at Bonds' feet. But whether he likes it or not, his share of responsibility is inordinately large, given he makes $11.45 million a season and might win a record fourth National League MVP award after his 49-homer, 106-RBI season. And given the outcome, it seemed somehow appropriate that Bonds' fly ball to center was the final out of the Giants' 4-0 loss to New York on Sunday, propelling the Mets into the National League Championship Series against St. Louis.
Bonds is the best player on baseball's best team but did virtually nothing to prevent its elimination. He went 3-for-17 in the Division Series and drove in one run. He was hitless in his last 10 at-bats, striking out in four of them. So Bonds is where you start, no matter how hard he wishes the ugly numbers away.
"I'm not a boxer," Bonds said. "It's not me against one other team, even though you guys make it out like that. That's fine. Feed your families. If that's what you choose to do, I'll keep coming back. You want to blame me, go ahead."
Barry Bonds wishes it weren't so, but in his postseason career, he's been no more menacing at the plate than Barry Manilow. In 27 playoff games for the Pirates and Giants, he is now 19-for-97 (.196) with 20 strikeouts. In nearly 100 playoff at-bats, he has driven in six runs. The future Hall of Famer who has 494 career home runs in the regular season has hit just one in the playoffs, and that was in 1992.
Bonds is a nine-time all-star, the Player of the Decade for the 1990s (according to The Sporting News), but has never been to a World Series. And, having missed again at age 36 with his fifth playoff team, you have to wonder whether he ever will.
He wonders, too.
"I just have to keep trying," Bonds said. "I haven't been here with as many teams as I've been here with by not believing I'm going to get back. I believe one day it's going to happen."
Is he worried it might not?
"What is there for me to be worried about?" he asked incredulously. "God gave me great ability to play baseball. He gave my family gifts I've never dreamed of. What do I have to be worried about?"
How about a career legacy?
Giants general manager Brian Sabean still has Bonds under contract for one more season. But at Bonds' escalating salary and escalating age, it is no certainty he will finish his career with San Francisco. And locked as they are in a competitive division loaded with bigger spenders such as the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies, there is no certainty the Giants will be able to work their mid-level payroll magic and return to the playoffs again before Bonds' contract is up.
"We didn't get here solely because of him," Sabean said, "and we didn't expect to win solely because of him."
Sabean obviously is a student of October baseball history. So is the fan who paraded around Shea Stadium with the sign that read, "Hey Barry â€“ Chipper is available for golf on Monday."
"It's a convenient argument [to focus on Bonds]," Sabean admitted. "But for every Reggie Jackson, there have been reams of reports on how to pitch to the Big Dogs."
We can only presume Sabean meant "Big Dogs" in the generic sense. But we must allow for the possibility he was referring to only one big dog.