It shouldn't be so weird to see players from your youth coaching in uniforms you're not used to. It's something of a tradition, really. Mark McGwire is going to wear a Padres uniform this year. Wally Joyner will wear a Tigers uniform. Big whoop.
Still, of all the possible permutations of 1987 Topps cards and weird uniforms, nothing scrambles my brain quite like Barry Bonds in a Marlins hat.
The team wasn't even a rumor when he won his first MVP. Show this picture to someone from 1990, and they'll assume Bonds fights crime in the future as The Electric M. Unless they assume he's a super villain. That seems unfair, because I'll bet he would be very complicated and hard to categorize, like Magneto, but we're getting sidetracked. The larger point is that Bonds in a Marlins hat is weird.
He's also just about the most fascinating baseball story of 2016.
Barry Bonds, hitting coach, was a concept everyone had thought of at least once after he was forced out of the game, but no one thought it would really happen. Probably because he was so beloved around baseball that he was forced out of the game. If teams didn't want to deal with his .480 on-base percentage because they thought he would be a distraction, how could they want to deal with him in middle management, working for thousands instead of millions? It was a hypothetical scenario that was fun for a few seconds -- "Imagine if ants were the size of poodles, man" -- but it was never realistic.
Over the years, though, the firestorm became a grumblestorm, and the grumblestorm became a natural indifference. Just like people forgot to keep caring about McGwire, Bonds will be just another uniformed baseball professional in a couple months. Now we get to answer the question: What would happen if the smartest hitter alive got to impart his hitting wisdom on an eager, young team?
The default response to the idea of Bonds mentoring the Marlins is to think about the already terrifying Giancarlo Stanton becoming an absolute demigod with his help. Even if we accept that Stanton still has some ceiling left to fill, though, there can't possibly be that much more he can learn from studying the schematics of hitting. He's already patient, already powerful.
Stanton: So I was thinking of hitting the ball real hard-like.
Bonds: Yeah, real hard. Just smack the heck out of it.
Stanton: And there are times when I try to hit the ball hard and I miss it entirely. I was thinking about hitting the hell out of the ball instead.
Bonds: Exactly. What you're trying to do is hit the ball 500 feet if you can.
Stanton: Just absolutely cream it, you know?
Bonds: /nods sagely
Stanton: I feel like a new hitter already, coach.
Of course, that's dumbed down by a factor of a million, and there are still things every hitter can learn by studying his craft, but I'm skeptical about Stanton leveling up after talking with Bonds for five minutes.
No, the real excitement comes with the more raw players on the Marlins, the unpolished stones. Marcell Ozuna was an unpolished prospect who made the majors on the strength of his pure, natural ability, and he's had varying amounts of success as an unpolished major leaguer because of that raw talent. Here's the sharpest hitting mind in the world, someone who commands respect in a clubhouse just by existing, and he would like to talk to Ozuna about hitting.
Or here's Dee Gordon, who's never slapped at a bad ball he didn't like. He's never going to be a 20-homer hitter, but there's still untapped potential there. So far in his career, he hasn't experimented with the idea of working the count to get a pitch he can drive. And maybe he never will. Or maybe it's best not to mess with something that's working. But if anyone can teach the art of aggressiveness through passivity, it would be Bonds.
Christian Yelich is an above-average hitter who isn't much older than a lot of the prospects who will start the season in Triple-A. His ceiling is almost certainly much higher than what we've seen, and now he'll get the ear of the sweetest left-handed swing of the last 100 years.
My goodness, we get to see Jeff Mathis unleashed.
It's all so very exciting, that I regret to inform you of the sad truth. Some Marlins hitters will have better seasons. Some Marlins hitters will have worse seasons. Some Marlins will get hurt. Some Marlins will get healthy. And at the end of the season, it'll be mostly impossible to point at the various successes and failures and attribute them entirely to Bonds, either way. If he's around next year, there will be more successes and more failures, and at the end of the season, it will be mostly impossible to attribute them to Bonds, again.
Consider the case of Hensley Meulens, who's been a hitting coach for six seasons, helping three different teams to championships. There's a way to tally up the hitters who have thrived under his tutelage, as well as the ones who have quietly disappeared. And when you look at the list, you have ... a bunch of success and failures, all of whom might have something or nothing to do with Meulens. Do we give him all of the credit for Matt Duffy, or did something happen with a coach in Double-A? If we give him Duffy credit, do we take something away because he couldn't turn Juan Perez into Juan Lagares? No idea. Which is probably why we don't pay attention to hitting coaches until teams stop hitting, which is generally when they're fired.
At the end of the season, we'll have very little idea of how much impact Bonds had. The closest comparison we have for him as a hitting coach is Ted Williams, who was a de facto hitting coach when he managed the Senators from 1969 through 1972. Some players had their best seasons. Some players didn't improve. And it's impossible to parse which players did/didn't improve, even with the benefit of hindsight. So it was with Williams, so it will be with Bonds.
That doesn't mean that we won't watch. It doesn't mean we won't guess. And it doesn't mean we won't have fun along the way. Barry Bonds is a hitting coach. My heart is a 15-foot spinning fiberglass marlin at the very thought.