Racing fan Allen backs Bonds despite controversy

August 07, 2007 3:06 AM
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I caught "Pride of the Yankees" on Turner Classic Movies the other night. Call me a sap, but I welled up during Lou Gehrig’s "Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" speech, even though I’d seen Gary Cooper, who portrayed the great Yankee slugger in the 1942 movie, render it many times before.

But you can bet I didn’t weep with Barry Bonds on the verge of breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record, because baseball has changed since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were wowing ”˜em in the 1920s and 30s. The purity and innocence of the game a half a century ago and beyond has evolved into a pill-popping show of unabashed egotism, disdain and greed. But what can you expect when the nation’s values are upside down, violence and bad taste permeate movies and so-called family hour TV, and gang culture penetrates America’s mainstream? Next thing you know, Dennis Rodman and Rosie O’Donnell will be voted America’s Favorite Couple.

Physically, Bonds doesn’t even look like the same person now as he did 10 years ago. He was pencil thin in 1997. Today, his body and head are twice the size they were then. But Bonds is consistent on the field. He leaves the batter’s box as leisurely after he hits a home run as he does when he hits a ground ball to the infield.

One man who has his head on straight these days is Richie Allen, one of the greatest sluggers not in baseball’s Hall of Fame. I hadn’t spoken to him for the record in almost 2½ years, but in light of Bonds’ pending mark, the timing seemed right.

As a point of reference, it’s worth noting Allen’s accomplishments again. In a career that spanned 1963 to 1977, he batted .292 to rank among contemporaries Rod Carew, Roberto Clemente and Pete Rose; had a .534 slugging percentage, second to Hank Aaron’s .542; trailed only the likes of Aaron, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Harmon Killebrew and Billy Williams in home runs; and ranked behind Aaron, Stargell, Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and McCovey in RBIs. He hit 10 walk-off home runs, placing him behind Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson and Tony Perez.

Over his career, at various points Allen led the league in on-base percentage, home runs, triples, runs scored, RBI’s, total bases, slugging, extra base hits and walks. Twice he stole enough bases to finish in the top 10. In 1972 with the White Sox, he led the American League in every power category: home runs (37), RBIs (113) and slugging (.603). His .308 batting average was third-best. He stole 19 bases and led the league with 99 walks and 70 extra base hits.

Allen was National League Rookie of the Year in 1964 with the Phillies, and he led the American League in home runs and slugging with the White Sox in 1974, despite going AWOL in September to return to his ranch and tend his horses.

Allen, now 65, still has a passion for racing, where his dear friends include retired Hall of Fame jockey and current agent for John Velazquez, Angel Cordero Jr., and Tony Matos, Cordero’s former agent, who now books business for Victor Espinoza and Aaron Gryder. Allen’s brothers, Hank, a former Major Leaguer, and Ron, operate a training center for young horses in Bowie, Md.

When he’s not congregating with cronies at Clockers’ Corner at Santa Anita or rooting home a $2 bet, Allen has his heart and mind on baseball, where he’s a talent coordinator for the Phillies. He’s also active in a program called RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), which is in its 19th season. Since its inception in 1989, RBI has grown from a local program for boys in South Central Los Angeles to an international campaign encompassing more than 200 cities and as many as 120,000 male and female participants a year.

Allen, who wielded a 36-ounce bat in his playing days, opted out of the steroid controversy focusing on Bonds. But he did say this in our first interview: "Whatever players are taking, I don’t feel it helps enhance hand/eye coordination. You still have to put the bat on the ball."

 That’s what Ruth did better than anyone. The Bambino hit his 714 career home runs in only 8,398 at bats, an average of one homer every 11.7 times up. Aaron needed 12,364 at bats to hit 755, an average of one every 16.3 at bats. Aaron had 3,966 more at bats than Ruth. Based on his average of homers per at bat, with the same number of at bats as Aaron, Ruth would have hit 1,055 home runs. Bonds has some 9,800 at bats. Talk about an uneven playing field.

As his credentials attest, Allen assuredly could put the bat on the ball. But his misanthropic attitude towards the media during his playing days didn’t win friends and influence people in the Fourth Estate, and thus did not enhance his chances of being voted into the Hall of Fame. Bonds, about to become the career home run leader, also leads in unpopularity, due to his generally contemptuous and confrontational attitude towards fans and the press. Still, he’s a cinch as a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.

"Bonds hurts himself when he won’t talk to the media," said Allen, whose highest annual salary was $350,000. "I did the same when I played in Philly. So did Lefty (Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton). But there are two sides to every story and controversy usually develops outside the lines."

The homestretch

Greg Gilchrist plans to give Smokey Stover one race before the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27, and that would be in the $75,000 Icecapade Stakes at Monmouth at six furlongs on Sept. 1. One of the favorites for the Sprint, Smokey Stover was third in his last start, the Smile at Calder on July 7.

"I’ll probably put three or four breezes into him before the Icecapade," the trainer said. "There’s a very good chance we’ll run there. We’re just looking for one race before the Breeders’ Cup and the Icecapade provides good spacing between his races. He’s a gelding and the whole idea is to get to the Breeders’ Cup in the best shape we can. We considered the Forego (Grade I at seven furlongs at Saratoga on Sept. 1) and I wouldn’t mind running at Del Mar, but I’m not down there training and I don’t want to risk taking a chance on a poor performance on Polytrack."

”¡ Jazil, the 2006 Belmont winner, will not make this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. "He’s on the farm (Shadwell in Lexington)," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "He’s OK but he bruised a front cannon bone again, so he’s not in training."

”¡ This just in: if Michael Vick is convicted of a Federal conspiracy charge on dog fighting, he will receive the maximum penalty of five years in prison, plus he’ll have to drink from the toilet.