From 1991 to 2005 the Atlanta Braves won the National League west or east every year but one(1994). The Braves won the west in 91', 92' and 93' before moving the NL east for the 1994 season. They were dominant during the regular season and featured one of the great pitching staffs in Major League Baseball. But as good as the team was and as dominant as pitchers like Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine may have been, the Braves won only one World Series during that stretch of dominance. The 1995 Braves beat the Indians to capture the trophy. But imagine how many World Series they may have won if one of the greatest players ever joined them early in their run. That player was almost Barry Bonds. Yup, that Barry Bonds and if things went as planned, not only would Bonds have been a Brave but the Tampa Bay Rays may never have existed because the Bay Area would have not needed them. The San Francisco Giants instead would be celebrating their 30th anniversary in Tampa Bay this season, 2023.
By the summer of 1992, then Giants owner Robert Lurie had reached his peak of frustration in trying to get a new stadium for his team. Candlestick Park was not cutting it as new ballparks were opening up all across MLB. Lurie had seen vote after vote get turned down in efforts to get taxpayers to assist in getting a new stadium. He turned his attention to selling the team after concluding the effort to get a home was fruitless.
On April 7, 1992, Lurie reached a deal to sell the Giants to a Tampa Bay syndicate for $110M with plans for the team to play in the Florida Suncoast Dome(the name then) for the 1993 season. The St. Pete Times headline was "Tampa Bay Has Giant Deal" as the area leaders celebrated after many efforts to lure a team for years had failed.
The news sent shockwaves throughout Major League Baseball but the sale needed approval from 10 of 14 National League owners.
Meanwhile, the 1992 season saw the Pittsburgh Pirates rolling through the National League east. Barry Bonds, then 27, was on his way to a second MVP in three seasons and had become the best player in the game. But despite the team's run the team faced a decision regarding Bonds. He was to be a free agent at the end of the season and team management knew Bonds would likely choose to play elsewhere and they quietly sought a trade for Bonds before the trade deadline. Braves GM John Schuerholtz believed he could get Bonds to sign a long term deal after the season and offered Alejandro Pena, Keith Mitchell and a minor league prospect. The Pirates were on board and the Braves believed they were about to add the best player in the game to a roster that featured Terry Pendleton, David Justice, Deion Sanders, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery.
But before a deal could be completed, Pirates manager Jim Leyland learned of the deal and stormed into the front office strongly opposing the move believing it could cost the team a World Series run. Pirates president Carl Barger heard Leyland's roar and said the team couldn't do the deal.
The Pirates went on the win the division as did the Braves win their division and the two faced off in the National League Championship Series. Down three games to one, the Pirates won games five and six and forced a seventh game in Atlanta. Down 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the Braves tied the game and with Francisco Cabrera at the plate he lined a base hit to left where Barry Bonds fielded and came up throwing home where Sid Bream slid safe across home plate as the Braves celebrated a league title.
The Braves went on to lose the World Series to the Blue Jays in six games and the Pirates faced the reality of Barry Bonds leaving via free agency with nothing in return.
Meanwhile, the Giants finished the 1992 season winning 72 games and averaging less than 20,000 fans per home game. But the deal to sell the team to a group of Tampa Bay investors needed approval and that was not a slam dunk. Some National League owners publicly supported the sale while others had concerns. Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent didn't pick a side but he said there was a process to follow. Political and financial leaders stepped forward in the Bay Area with hopes of showing MLB that there were new potential owners willing to step forward and buy the team and keep it in San Francisco.
There were concerns on several fronts about letting the Giants, who had moved from New York in 1957, to go to Florida where MLB had already announced the Marlins and Rockies were set to begin play in 1993. Did they want a second Florida team that quick and a second National League team as well in the state?
Peter Magowan, who was the CEO of Safeway, at the age of 37 emerged as a potential buyer for the Giants with plans to keep the team in the Bay Area. By November of 92' Magowan had put the purchase plan in place and the vote to move the Giants to Tampa needed ten votes. It got nine. For the seventh time, Tampa Bay had failed to lure a team to the area.
Magowan's offer was around what the Tampa Bay syndicate had been willing to pay. That was enough for MLB to throw their support behind Magowan's plan and Robert Lurie was willing to sell and the deal was completed to keep the Giants in San Francisco.
Despite the deal, Magowan felt the team needed a splashy move to drum up support for get a new ballpark and he went big. Magowan convinced one of the game's best players to meet him at an airport and hear the pitch. By the time that meeting was done, Barry Bonds agreed to be a Giant on December 6, 1992 the team announced a six year 43.5M deal, the highest at the time in baseball.
The fortune for the Giants changed immediately. Bonds homered in his first at-bat at home and went on to become one of the greatest players ever and all-time home run leader, with plenty of controversy as well.
Magowan took some time to garner support for a new stadium but AT&T Park(now known as Oracle Park) opened in 2000 and Barry Bonds was the biggest reason the park was built. Bonds played in only one World Series in San Francisco and lost in 2002 to the Angels.
Today, the Rays exist in Tampa Bay and have been competitive despite one of the lowest payrolls in the game. Attendance has been challenging since day one for the franchise and efforts to build a new park closer to downtown Tampa has never materialized.
Who knows what might have been if the sale in 1992 had been completed and the Giants moved to Florida. Would Bonds have signed with the team? Not likely. Who knows how the Giants would have fared playing in Tampa Bay. The 2023 season would have marked 30 years had they moved. San Francisco may have gone after another franchise to relocate or possibly baseball could have expanded. Maybe the A's would have benefitted by becoming the lone team in the Bay Area and gotten the new stadium they have been seeking for years.
Who knows what would have been. What if Bonds was traded to the Braves that summer of 1992? How many titles would the Braves have won? Could you imagine Bonds playing on that team with those pitchers?
Barry a Brave? And the Giants instead of the Rays?
Final note: In 1995, MLB awarded Tampa Bay an expansion team. The price? $130M