Barry Bonds homered for the 755th time yesterday, tying Aaron's record. I feel ambivalent about the accomplishment, even numb to it, and will continue to feel this way when he breaks the record. I didn't feel that way on the night Aaron broke Ruth's record. I'd showered and was in my pj's watching from our couch in the den. I was so happy for Henry Aaron. I had his baseball card and he seemed like a tremendous human being. They wrote about his wrists and how strong they were--the secret to his home runs. The moment was epic for many reasons. Sports journalists today cover the game like a continuous colonoscopy. We see too much and we know too much. The mystique is gone forever and along with it the way we listened to baseball on transistor radios while doing our homework. Baseball is meant to be imagined in one's mind or viewed in person. It has never been "Must See TV."
Barry Bonds gets a bad rap. Breaking the record will not disgrace the game. It's not like Bonds is any more despicable as a person than say, one Tyrus Cobb or even the drunken philanderer from Baltimore, George Herrman Ruth, whom people worshipped and loved. Pete Rose comes to mind as well when odious baseball behavior is the flavor of the moment. Cheating has always been central to the game of baseball. Balls are scuffed and greased by pitchers, even Hall of Fame hurlers have been known to carry sandpaper. No one asks about the number of "true" wins they have. Stealing signs is an accepted practice (and the Yankees are known and thrown at for this). I remember a childhood friend of mine who lived next to a ballplayer. There were pills and marijuana around the house. Limousines dropped off scantily clad women. These guys are fallible human beings who excel at a boy's game. Why do we require them to be paragons of moral virtue or larger than life heroes? I visited the Mets locker room in the late eighties and was surprised by how overwhelmingly human the players were, just regular guys having a Budweiser and a turkey sandwich. The two nicest and most personable players to me that day: Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.
Steroids killed the home run as we know it, but it was already dying a slow death. First, the balls were juiced and flying out of newly created "banbox" parks in record numbers. We needed more runs and we blamed it on the baseballs while players became Incredible Hulks before our eyes. We bought the tightly wound ball excuse for awhile. The runs piled up and we were all along for the ride. McGwire and Sosa battled like professional wrestlers for the home run crown. Then we turned on them--the users. We forgot that the owners and the GMs must have known something and must have profited from it. Performance enhancing drugs give an "edge" to the batter. A player with warning track power suddenly becomes a slugger. More power hitters making more money with lucrative contracts are a good thing for the players in general. Home runs, though beautiful and breathtaking to watch, are a superficial aspect of the game to me and one that should not be focused on exclusively. They were a precious commodity back in the 70s, something to cherish and hold in the memory, and now they have become instant gratification for our home run derby obsessed American culture. I prefer a pitcher's duel, a defensive struggle, a scratch run.
Bonds is an extraordinary baseball talent and the swift, compact nature of his swing emerged as a major factor in his ability to pile up the round trippers. His homers, all of them, will be viewed as "synthetic" to some degree from this point forward. There is nothing he can do about that and he has only himself to blame. My guess is he's somewhere between Ty Cobb and Cal Ripken on the "hero" scale. But make no mistake, there is no such thing as the pristine game of baseball.