When the Atlanta Braves finally won a World Series in 1995, NBC's Bob Costas referred to them as "the team of the 1990s." Imagine if the the most dominant regular season team of the first half of the decade had added arguably the greatest player in baseball history.
If not for Jim Leyland, it likely would have happened.
Three seasons before they ultimately won the third World Series title in franchise history, the Braves were on the cusp of acquiring Barry Bonds ahead of his age-27 season.
This wasn't a case of two teams that simply had traction in trade talks. No, the Braves had agreed to acquire Bonds from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Braves general manager John Schuerholz, a future Hall of Famer, wrote in his book in 2006 that he had convinced Pirates general manager Ted Simmons, a future Hall of Famer as a player, to trade him Bonds for pitcher Alejandro Pena, outfielder Keith Mitchell and a player-to-be-named-later.
Not only was Bonds going to come to Atlanta for the 1992 season, but Scheurholz added in his book he believed the organization had a chance to keep him from reaching free agency after the season.
And then came the infamous call back from Simmons. Even though Leyland had famously cursed Bonds out at Spring Training in the prior year, when he became aware of what would have been one of the most lopsided trades in sports history, he squashed the idea.
"When informed of the trade, Jim went barging into Pirates President Cark Barger's office and, according to Ted, went absolutely haywire," Schuerholz wrote in his book. "He said Barger came back to him and said it was a situation so troublesome to the manager and this and that, they couldn't do the deal. And ultimately it was called off."
Bonds ultimately would remain with the Pirates for the 1992 season, putting together a monster season that netted him his second National League MVP in three seasons. In just 473 at-bats, Bonds slashed .311/.456/.624 with 34 home runs, 103 RBIs, 39 stolen bases, a 1.080 OPS and a staggering 9.6 fWAR. Pena was one of the game's elite relievers at the time, but when you consider that Mitchell's career lasted just four seasons, the Pirates ended up better off holding onto Bonds for an additional season than trading him for the return they had initially agreed to.
For as dominant of a regular season as Bonds had, he underwhelmed in the postseason, a trend that followed him until a monster postseason in 2002. The Pirates lost the NLCS in seven games, missing out of a chance to go to the World Series because the Braves instead finished them off with a three-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7.
The Braves didn't really get the last laugh, though, either. After losing in the 1991 World Series to the Minnesota Twins, anything short of actually being crowned champions would be disappointing. And ultimately, the Braves lost in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays, who won their first of two consecutive World Series titles.
Bonds did become a free agent after the 1992 season. He would sign a six-year/$43.75 million deal to join the San Francisco Giants, the team he had grown up watching his father, Bobby, and godfather, Willie Mays, play for. Bonds would spend the final 15 seasons of his illustrious career with the Giants, slugging 586 of his 762 career home runs with the team. Though he never won a World Series, Bonds did hit .356 with eight home runs and 27 walks in the 2002 playoffs, en route to helping the Giants reach the World Series, where they lost to the Anaheim Angels in seven games.
Meanwhile, the Braves would ultimately sign reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux in free agency after the 1992 season. Maddux joined Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to create one of the most dominant starting rotations in baseball history. The Braves won the National League West in 1993, before moving to the National League East in 1995, following a strike-shortened 1994 season. They would proceed to win the National League East in each of Maddux's final nine seasons with the team. In 1995, the Braves broke through and won a World Series, defeating Cleveland in six games.
Had they acquired - and ultimately re-signed - Bonds, there's a good chance that the Braves wouldn't have signed Maddux after the 1992 season. As Brandon Garrett of Braves General Store noted, if Bonds was part of the team for the long-term, it could have set up a chance to have an outfield consisting of him, Deion Sanders and David Justice at some point. That maybe wouldn't have been everyone's cup of tea in terms of personalities, but it would have made for one of the most athletically gifted outfields in baseball history. Bonds also would have eventually had a chance to hit in the same lineup as Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones for an extended period of seasons, a scary proposition for the rest of the league.
Alas, it wasn't meant to be. And Bonds' arrangement in San Francisco didn't work out half bad either.