Wednesday was declared Barry Bonds Day in San Francisco. Bonds was given a day because the night before he broke one of the most revered records in sports–the career home run record. Bonds hit career home run No. 756 off of Washington Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik.
The asterisk beside Bonds’ name in the headline of this column is because many people believe the record of his accomplishment should perhaps be qualified in some way. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run mark in 1961, then Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick decreed that Maris’ total of 61 would bear an asterisk in the record books, because he had hit those home runs over a 162 game-season whereas Ruth hit his 60 over a 154-game season.
The way that many (perhaps most, maybe even the vast majority) of us baseball fans have been compelled to think about Bonds’ pursuit of Aaron’s record is a shame, really. On Tuesday night’s Atlanta Braves radio broadcast, announcer Pete Van Weiren pointed out how strange last weekend was for baseball fans.
It should have been one of the greatest weekends in baseball history. New York Mets pitcher Tom Glavine won his 300th career game, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriquez became the youngest player ever to reach 500 career home runs, and Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron’s career home run record.
But, Van Weiren pointed out, while there was some excitement about Glavine’s and Rodriquez’s accomplishments, there was not much excitement about what Bonds had done, at least not outside of his home base of San Francisco.
I remember well the excitement that accompanied Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s career home run record. That is not to say that all was sweetness and light, because it wasn’t.
Ruth was venerated and rightly so. Some people still regard him as the greatest home run hitter of all time, even though his record has now been eclipsed twice. He was far and away the greatest home run hitter of his era, while Aaron did have some peers who were right up there with him–Willie Mays and Frank Robinson in particular.
Ruth also is usually credited with being the individual most responsible for making Major League Baseball the cultural phenomenon that it is. So, some folks had legitimate respect for the Babe and genuinely regretted seeing his record fall.
There was also an ugly side to some people’s negativity toward Aaron’s pursuit, especially in those who just did not want to see a black man break a white icon’s record.
I was a 15-year-old devoted Braves fan in 1974, and so I was thrilled when Aaron broke the record. Because of a misguided sense of religious duty, I did not actually get to witness it, because our church’s youth choir was singing at a local church’s revival service that night.
In America a person is innocent until proven guilty, and Barry Bonds has not been proven guilty of anything. On the other hand, he has not been charged with anything, so the fairly abundant circumstantial evidence has not yet been put to the test. But that hasn’t stopped the public from jumping to conclusions.
On an episode of the “Bob Newhart Show,” Bob was hosting a local television talk show. One night he had as a guest a man who owned “the world’s smallest horse.” Bob asked him, “How do you know it’s the world’s smallest horse?” The man replied, “Just look at him!”
We’ve done that with Bonds. We look at how he appeared when he was gangly young outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates and at how much larger and stronger he became late in his career. “Of course he used steroids,” we say. “Just look at him!”
I have a picture of Hank Aaron hanging on the wall in my study. Beneath it is a framed editorial cartoon by Marshall Ramsey that depicts a young boy and his father visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame. The father is holding a copy of Juiced by Jose Canseco. His son, pointing at the plaques of Ruth and Aaron, asks, “What kind of performance enhancer did they use?” The father replies, “Talent.”
Ruth and Aaron, so far as anyone can tell, used no artificial performance enhancers. Ruth died long before I came along, but I have seen for myself the dignity and class with which Henry Aaron has carried himself and the fine way in which he has represented the game of baseball.
Truth be told, Bonds would be an unpopular home run king even if steroids did not exist. That is true because of his perceived egotism and self-centeredness. The allegations of steroid use just make it worse.
We can argue from now until A-Rod breaks Bonds’ record about who the greatest home run hitter of all time truly is. But given the choice of having either Aaron or Bonds speak to your church, civic group or elementary school–or of having either or them come to your home for dinner–who would you choose?
And that’s because ethics, dignity, fair play, class and respect still mean something in this old world. Thank God.
Michael Ruffin is curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.