Major League Baseball's all-time homerun record is unlike any other statistic in professional sports. To people who couldn't care less about sports, it's utterly meaningless, but to those of us who do, it's huge. It's the holy grail of records. Can you name the football player who's scored the most touchdowns? The basketball player who's scored the most points? The hockey player with the most goals?
Now, how about the man with the most career homeruns? We'll wager that even many of you who don't follow sports somehow knew that the answer to the last question is Hank Aaron, the great African-American outfielder who played for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers from 1954 through 1976 and endured unspeakable emotional abuse as he approached and then broke Babe Ruth's all-time homerun record.
The record is about to be broken again, and it should be a momentous occasion. It's a record that's been eclipsed only twice in the last 112 years and held by three men during that time: Roger Connor (138 homers), Ruth (714) and Aaron (755).
Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, as of the beginning of play Tuesday, has 753 homers. If he were to remains on the pace he's hitting them this season, he'd break the record Friday, Aug. 3, or Saturday, Aug. 4-both games played in San Diego.
It should be a momentous occasion, but it's not. Sports fans across the country feel like the record's about to be stolen, rather than broken-and stolen by a jerk. Those who didn't want Aaron to break Ruth's record based their animus on the color of Aaron's skin. Those who don't want Bonds to break Aaron's record base their animus on the content of Bonds' character.
By most accounts, Bonds has long been a colossal asshole. Even before he became an arrogant major-leaguer, his teammates at Arizona State University actually voted to boot him off the team, despite his all-star caliber, only to be overruled by the coach. His reputation grew over the course of his pro career.
In 2003, when Bonds became entangled in a criminal investigation of BALCO, a Bay Area company accused of distributing steroids and growth hormones to pro athletes, many observers felt their suspicions of Bonds as a steroid user were confirmed. Starting in the late 1990s, Bonds, who'd had a powerful yet wiry frame, became curiously huge, and his power performance hit new highs. He broke the single-season homerun record in 2001, when he was 37 years old, an age when most lengthy baseball careers come to an end. Since then, Bonds has hit 186 homers, more than most men hit in their entire careers.
Bonds' name was on BALCO's distribution list, his personal trainer was caught in the BALCO net, and Bonds has said he might have unknowingly been given substances that are now against baseball rules-he says he thought it was flaxseed oil. (Steroids, while not against baseball rules when these players were using, were and are illegal under federal law.) He's reportedly being investigated for tax evasion and lying to the grand jury that was probing BALCO.
The easiest path for those of us who are uncomfortable with Bonds attaining sports' most prestigious statistic is to harbor open anger and contempt for Bonds because he's a cheater and to look away when the pomp and ceremony ensue.
But here's the maddening thing: It's not that simple. The 1990s have become known as the steroids era because so many athletes used them. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto said during an ESPN game broadcast Monday night, Bonds “is carrying an awful lot of weight for [players] who haven't been caught yet.” And Bonds has not been sanctioned, by baseball or the courts, for anything. Nothing's been proven. To place an asterisk by his name, mentally or otherwise, would be easy, but affixing one to a whole era is more complicated.
With or without steroids, Barry Bonds is one of his time's greatest talents. His career hasn't been just about homeruns. His hand-eye coordination is legendary. He had speed, defense and power long before he bulked up.
That's why this whole saga is such a shame. We want so badly to be able to judge the accomplishments of Bonds and his contemporaries against those of their predecessors, but we can't because Major League Baseball became addicted to the remarkable performances that these substances helped create and the money they generated. Baseball's ownership cabal looked the other way when an obvious problem appeared. Now the rest of us are left to “tsk tsk” when Bonds hits the record-breaker.
That is, until Yankees infielder Alex Rodriguez-who turns 32 on Friday and has already hit 498 homers-breaks Bonds' record in, say, 2014. Then we can all feel good again.
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