Barry Bonds broke the career home-run record held for 33 years by Henry Aaron last night, jolting number 756 out of the park at home in San Francisco. Bonds took a 3-2 pitch into the stands 435 feet away — and extended a controversy as to whether he deserves the record:
The ball exploded off Barry Bonds’ bat, a small white sphere streaking through the dark San Francisco sky, headed for the right-center field seats and a hallowed place in baseball history.
It was 8:51 Tuesday, a night no one in the sellout crowd of 43,154 at AT&T Park would ever forget, a night to be lived and relived by word of mouth, digital camera and endless reels of highlight tape.
On a 3-and-2 pitch from Washington Nationals left-hander Mike Bacsik, Bonds, in his second game after tying Hank Aaron’s career home run mark of 755, belted No. 756.
In this, his 23rd season in the major leagues, his 16th in a Giants uniform, the holder of the single-season home run record with 73 in 2001 and a record seven most-valuable player awards, Bonds added the final jewel to his home run crown.
If Hammerin’ Hank had his doubts about the steroid-fueled capture of his mark in baseball history, he had too much class to make that argument last night. Aaron, who pointedly refused to attend Bonds’ games in objection to Bonds’ alleged use of steroids, did the next-best thing:
Willie Mays, Bonds’ godfather, the first Giants’ icon in San Francisco, emerged from the dugout. The two men stood arm in arm, 1,416 home runs between them, first and fourth on the all-time list.
And then Bonds turned, Mays turned, we all turned to the enormous video board behind center field. There was Aaron, suddenly second on the all-time list, larger than life and appropriately so.
“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader,” Aaron said. “It is a great accomplishment which requires longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years.
“I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
Everyone knows that Bonds has used steroids in his efforts to improve his baseball game. It’s been part of courtroom testimony, and it’s been pretty obvious to those who have watched Bonds bulk up over the years. His 73 home runs in a single season — at 37! — made it more obvious than even Mark McGwire’s bulking up on androstenidione to hit 70 shortly before that. Sammy Sosa also allegedly bolstered his natural performance, as did Jason Giambi, Jose Conseco, and plenty of others.
But that’s part of the problem with putting a big, fat asterisk on Bonds’ record. We may want to do that to show the difference between Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, but both played in different conditions. If Bonds bulked up, so did plenty of other players, including the pitchers he faced. It’s the Steroids Era, and Bonds excelled in it.
If anyone deserved the asterisk — that despicable appendix with which Ford Frick cursed Roger Maris — it’s Babe Ruth. I’m not saying that Ruth took performance enhancing drugs; he usually handicapped himself with excessive drinking and eating. Ruth, however, played in an era that excluded some of the best talent in baseball because of segregation. He never had to face the excellent players in the Negro League, while Maris and Aaron played against a level field in their careers. Ruth hit 714 home runs (and set many other records as well) against a whites-only league. It’s not his fault — he didn’t make the rules — but it’s the one era in baseball which limited competition and talent, and all records set in that era have to be taken with a grain of salt.
So who really deserves the asterisk? Peter Ueberroth, Fay Vincent, and Bud Selig. They did nothing while steroids flourished, because owners liked what it did to the game. It resulted in more homers, and more spectacular homers at that. It generated interest in baseball during some rocky times and led to the silly Home Run Derbys before All-Star Games. The owners marketed on steroids and they depended on them just as much as the players who used them — and these commissioners didn’t lift a finger to stop it until Congress asserted what little authority it had to embarrass MLB. Only then did Selig start pushing against the Steroids Era.
So let’s not put all the blame on Bonds — but let’s recognize the man who earned that record without drugging himself, playing in an era where high mounds and wider strike zones made it one of the most difficult periods for hitters. Hammerin’ Hank had to play baseball and fight bigots to get to 755. In my mind, he and Roger Maris will always be the home-run kings of baseball.