Breaking Bonds

Spencer Torkelson (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Spencer Torkelson was only seven years old—19 days from his eighth birthday—when Barry Bonds became MLB’s all-time leader in home runs with a blast into the right-center field bleachers at the Giants’ AT&T Park.

Torkelson, who grew up wearing his favorite Giants gear in Petaluma, Calif., vividly remembers the moment. More than anything for him, it was the aura of dominance surrounding Bonds with every game he watched.

“I think my biggest memory was just going to Giants games and the buzz with everyone was about Barry and he was going to hit a home run,” Torkelson said. “It's just what you expected him to do every game. It was all the hype around Barry. I specifically remember going to games and going, 'Oh yeah, Barry's gonna hit one into McCovey Cove today.’”

Now, nearly 11 years later, Torkelson, a first baseman and corner outfielder, is smashing Bonds’ home run record at just 18 years old.

In 1984, Bonds set the freshman home run record at Arizona State University with 11 long balls in 64 games. Torkelson broke the 35-year-old record in the Sun Devils’ 25th game of the season with a two-run shot to dead center field off Washington State southpaw Isaac Mullins.

“As soon as I hit it, I kind of got chills a little bit. It was like, 'Wow, I just broke his record, this is gonna be sick,’” Torkelson remembers with a laugh.

Torkelson’s career as a Sun Devil started with an 0-for-4 outing against Miami of Ohio. But that was Game 1 of ASU’s Opening Day doubleheader. Later that night, Torkelson previewed the power show he would put on this year. In a 7-3 win, he went 3-for-4 with two solo shots. The next day, in another doubleheader, he went 4-for-8 with his third home run, two doubles and three RBI.

“We saw the power emerging in the fall games during intra-squad games, so no, I’m not surprised we are seeing power in the spring,” head coach Tracy Smith said. “I am a little surprised that a young hitter has maintained this level of consistency up to this point. That is pretty tough to do regardless of year in school.”

After hitting four home runs in the first six games, it was clear this was more than a flash in the pan. That’s when a teammate first told Torkelson of the record. As he inched closer towards Bonds’ record, even he knew he could break it. Torkelson kept telling himself one thing only—don’t change a thing.

“People would always remind me, but if I could just keep that in the background, I'd be good. Don't just be a home-run hitter, but a great hitter.”

Hitting home runs at a record-breaking pace is nothing new for Torkelson. Going back to his Little League days, this is the norm. As a 12-year-old, he hit a ridiculous 36 home runs, but it was his friends who were in the spotlight. While Torkelson dominated his Petaluma Valley competition it was the Petaluma National all-star team who made it to the Little League World Series, finishing third overall.

“We played travel ball together and I grew up playing with them, so we were super tight,” Torkelson said. “I still talk to a couple of them. I think it was jealousy and just overwhelmingly happy for them.”

At Casa Grande High School, Torkelson was a four-year star at third base. Over his high school career, he hit 11 home runs, including seven his senior year while playing at a home ballpark where the wind in left field swirls and spits out any fly ball.

Arriving on campus 10 pounds stronger from summer workouts, the same swing that has brought him so much success followed Torkelson to Tempe. He sits on his right back leg, slowly wiggles the bat up and down and then explodes with a short stride.

“I actually look at Barry Bonds and he didn't have a huge leg kick. It was real simple,” Torkelson said. “Just get it down and let the hands do the job because his hands were the best in the game, the best ever I think. You couldn't beat that guy with anything and I want to be just like that.”

Torkelson praises hitting coach Mike Earley for creating his approach as a complete hitter with a .321/.444/.782 slash line. In ASU’s 13-8 win over Utah on April 22, he became the 12th player in school history to hit 20 home runs in a single season—doing so in only 39 games. 

Torkelson hit his 21st home run of the season last Friday at Oregon State, placing him just six long balls away from the single-season school record. Currently, he leads Cal’s Andrew Vaughn by two home runs for the top spot in the country. Dating back to 1965, no freshman has ever ended the year as the home run leader in D-1 baseball.

Each day Smith and Earley witness the evolution of their young star. While he is shy of predictions, the head coach only sees the future getting brighter in the desert and beyond for his freshman phenom.

“One year does not make a career, but his talent and work ethic are elite,” Smith said. “I believe those qualities will allow him the opportunity to have a lot of success for a long time in this game. While I can’t tell you exactly how it all plays out, it sure is going to be fun watching it all unfold over the next few years.”

For the future, Torkelson wants nothing more than to bring Arizona State its first national championship since 1981, saying stats will only follow more wins. In the now, the fun is flowing for the teenager who never hides his smile on the field. Even on Snapchat his friends and teammates call him Barry Bonds. Hearing his name next to Bonds has been nothing short of surreal. And yes, it sure has been fun.

“It felt weird. You grow up, I was a big Giants fan and I idolized Barry Bonds' hitting and how great he was. Part of the reason I came to ASU was Barry Bonds. As soon as I hear my name with him in the same conversation, it's just kind of weird. There's no other explanation."