The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

On Barry

What was once uncertain, thought of as a remote possibility, not completely comprehendable to the average baseball fan, has finally come to fruition.


A number that, until about a year ago, no one ever thought would be attained.

And on one swing of the bat in the San Francisco night, it finally happened.

Barry Lamar Bonds, son of the late Bobby Lee Bonds, godson of Willie Howard Mays Junior, hit a home run to right-center field of AT&T Park in the China Basin area of the city by the Golden Gate to surpass Henry Aaron for the all-time career home run lead.

40 years ago, no one could have even imagined someone getting this far. 10, 20, 30 years ago – same thing.

Then came the 1998 season, and Mark McGwire's exploits with Sammy Sosa. And, of course, the reports of creatine, and something called "Andro".

Which was short for one thing: Steroids.

In the ensuing seasons, the talk became louder and louder as suddenly 60 homers were ho-hum yawners of a season. Wake me up when you get near 70.

And that's what Barry Bonds did. But the steroid talk got around to him as well – and, as it appears, rightly so. Books have been written, grand juries have been called, accusations made, and the boos have been long and loud around the country.

Still: 756 home runs.

What to make of it all? The stathead claims, rightfully, that even without the home runs, Barry is still one of the greatest players of all time. He was able to do more with what he had than practically anyone in the long history of the game.

There are other arguments, of course: he was already a great player before 1998; there is evidence to the affirmative that pitchers and other players were also taking steroids, which "levelled the playing field", so to speak; the shrinking size of the ballparks themselves should also be considered (going from the cavern of Candlestick to the wedged-in bandbox of PacBell/SBC/AT&T Park, for example).

But there is one question that no one has, at least to this point, bothered to ask. Not of Barry, of course – he's already the home run king, and has already made his choices that led to this point.

No, the question is this, and is simple – would the men he chased down have done any different?

Babe Ruth was far from being a saint. Anyone can tell you that. His reported "bellyache" was a supposed cover for a case of either syphillus or some other socially-contracted venereal disease. He ate, drank, screwed and cavorted with wild abandon. At the end of his career, he wanted nothing less that to extend his career – first by switching leagues, then by trying to become a manager (something that would help a later record-chaser, Pete Rose, in his quest of baseball immortality).

One could almost imagine back in the late 1930's, when Ruth was persona non grata in New York, and he was exiled to Boston to play not with the Red Sox, but with the Braves – the Braves! – and seeing him, sitting sullen in the dugout, wondering to himself how he could manage to keep going.

The question is, if someone like Victor Conte came along – or even someone else, who was just trying to act in a sympathetic manner – and told Ruth that he could conceivably extend his career by five more years if he only followed a strict, regimented training plan and took some "supplements" that would enhance his diminished swing and keep him hale and hearty even as he was reaching his mid-40's, would he have done so?

The same, too, of our Mr. Aaron. I've always wanted to ask Henry that same question: Hank, if someone would have told you back in 1975, right after you looped that fly ball that landed just over the fence at County Stadium on that summer night, that by doing some exercises and taking some pills – and maybe a steroid cream or a shot or something – you would be able to keep hitting those home runs, even as your vaunted wrists began to fail you – would you have done it?

Hank's answer might not have been the same as Ruth's, of course. The absolute hell that Henry went through just to get to 755 was more than any man should endure. To think what even a handful to a dozen more home runs would have cost him, not physically but mentally, is beyond comprehension.

Legalities and grand juries aside, the truth still lies on the field, and in the numbers, and in the play of Barry Bonds. He did it – regardless of how he got there, he got there. There are those who begrudge the Cincinnati Reds of their 1919 World Series title, or Roger Maris of his single-season record of 61 home runs, or of Pete Rose's 4,260 hits, or of the Florida Marlins' 1997 World Series championship, or Mark McGwire's 70 home runs. The truth, however, is that each of those persons and groups achieved what they did. It is the end result, inevitably, that we have to face head-on.

Orenthal James Simpson was the first running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season in football. His subsequent legal issues were of no consequence at the time. Tyrus Raymond Cobb's 4,191 career hits and ferocity at the plate and on the basepaths were legendary – and yet to say he was greatly disliked in his own time is an understatement. Wilt Chamberlain accomplished a feat no one thought possible in scoring 100 points in an NBA game – and did so before anyone questions how often he scored off the court.

Barry Bonds is the all-time home run king – for now, as some are pointing out. A youngster across the continent, wearing the pinstripes and the number 13 of the Yankees in the Bronx, has passed 500 homers in his career and looks to be headed towards the record Bonds will set with each remaining sweet swing of the bat. Whether that total is one more or 100, many believe – or hope, perhaps – that it won't be a record held long.

Of course, people thought that the record held by Roger Maris wouldn't be around as long as it was. And many thought that if anyone was going to catch Babe Ruth, it would have been Barry's godfather and not the soft-spoken Aaron. The person who finally "catches" Bonds – if ever, of course – may not even be a gleam in the eyes of his parents right now.

756 is exactly what it is – the new record for most home runs in a career. At least until Barry hits another.

In the end, that's what's important to remember – it is just a number. They're all "just numbers" – be it 660, 714, 755, or 880.

880, of course, is the alleged total number of career home runs by Josh Gibson, a catcher in the Negro Leagues who never got the chance to play major league baseball alongside people like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, or Williams.

In truth, it's more of a shame something like that happened in the history of the game (and of our nation) than is the storm clouds surrounding Barry Bonds.