Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Bonds, Aaron, Maris, and the Ghost of Babe Ruth

I don't know why people like the home run so much. A home run is over as soon as it starts.... The triple is the most exciting play of the game. A triple is like meeting a woman who excites you, spending the evening talking and getting more excited, then taking her home. It drags on and on. You're never sure how it's going to turn out. ~George Foster (a pretty fair home run hitter himself)

As I write this, Barry Bonds is one home run away from tying Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs. When Bonds hits number 715, he won't be the all-time leader, he'll be in second place behind Hank Aaron (at 756, I believe). Yet a lot of discussion, some of it rather heated, is being generated over Bonds passing Ruth. It's not the first time the ghost of the Babe and his homers has loomed large over the game, but the situations have differences.

In 1961, Roger Maris, who had bounced from Cleveland to Kansas City to New York, suddenly found himself under pressure no player had ever seen before. Maris had shown power in his young career but was not much of hitter for average. He was also a mediocre outfielder (although he improved considerably over the years). In his second season with the Yankees, Maris suddenly began hitting home runs in clusters. Also, Mickey Mantle was hitting them right along with him. Suddenly, baseball fans were treated to not one but two players going for one of the most sacred records in baseball.

The public, of course, was rooting for Mantle, the boyish rogue, with the brilliant talent and oft-injured legs. But as the season progressed, Maris moved ahead of Mantle and stayed there. The media focus shifted to a young player who was not ready for it. Mantle could have handled it easily; Maris barely could.

Then as the season wound down, the question of the length of the season came up. Ruth played when the season was 154 games long; baseball now played 162 games. What would happen if Maris beat the record after game 154? Would it count? Well, in any other sport, changes of equipment, lengths of seasons, and other externalities have never entered into the discussion. But, the Lords of Baseball can make hamburger out of filet mignon any time they try. It was announced that there would be an asterisk after Maris' record should he break it after game 154 (the asterisk has since been removed).

So here's poor Roger Maris, being chased by reporters daily, having to answer the same questions over and over. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, the hate mail started.

I've never understood what prompts people to send hate mail. Okay, I wasn't thrilled about a .260 hitter beating Ruth's record, but I couldn't conceive of writing, as some people did, death threats to Maris. People told him he had no right to break Ruth's record. Of course, he had a right to, and he beat the odds and did it. But the furor surrounding chase for the record with all the attendant stress and emotional pain dogged him for years.

Hank Aaron's situation wasn't quite as bad, but it wasn't pretty. Aaron's pursuit of Ruth's career record was a tribute to longevity and consistency. Aaron was a blue collar ball player; he showed up every day and did his job to the best of his ability. And suddenly, after years of people expecting Willie Mays or Mantle to challenge the Babe, here was a good man who had just done his job challenging an immortal.

What a great story. And, for most of us, it was just that. But, once again, Aaron was the center of attention. The media, both sports and non-sports, followed him everywhere, reported his every move. A black man getting this kind of adulation was more than some white bigots could take. Once again came death threats and obscene mail. Like Maris, Aaron's enjoyment had to have been dulled by this sort of nonsense. But, unlike Maris, Aaron had the support of the vast majority of baseball fans.

And then there's Barry Bonds. Frankly, I'm no fan of his. He's been surly and not fan-friendly though much of his career. To me his attitude is typified by his refusing to sign home run ball 713 for a U. S. service man. He was willing to take a picture with the man, as long as the service man signed a release allowing the whole schmear to be used on Bonds' reality show. Bonds doesn't want the guy to make a mint selling the ball on E-bay, but he doesn't mind using the guy and his military status to hype his own show (and pad his own bank account). That's churlish.

Then there's the cloud of enhancement drug use floating over him. In spite of that, I do admire his athletic ability. It takes more than human growth hormone or steroids to enable you to hit a ball. The fact is that hitting a baseball is generally regarded as one of the most difficult tasks in sports. As Ted Williams once noted, hitting is difficult that someone who fails only seven times out of ten is considered pretty darn good. But the stigma lingers.

It is strange that no one has suggested taking Mark McGuire's single-season home run title away from him, even though he admitted taking human growth hormone, which was not against the rules at the time. Yet now, there are already suggestions that Bonds' records (those he has and those he might yet get) should be expunged because he may or may not have been taking steroids at the time.

(Yes, I know about the book that claims he did. But, what he took, when he took it, and who gave it to him seems to be rather up in the air, especially since the Balco boys who supposedly served up the drugs have publicly denied doing so.)

There are those who are trying to rehabilitate Bonds' image, portraying him as well-liked by his teammates and a quiet guy who just won't surrender to the hoopla. Well, nice try, all you well-meaning people. It doesn't change his actions over the years, nor does it change his status as a player. He's a great all-around player, who happens to be something of a jerk. He isn't the first athlete to be like that, and, regrettably, he won't be the last.

So I don't like Barry Bonds, but if he hits 715 home runs, good for him. He'll be the number two all-time home run hitter. I wont' be rooting for him to break Hammerin' Hank's record, but I won't be making little Barry Bonds images to stick pins into, either. And, I won't be writing letters to the Commissioner's office demanding his records be expunged.

Baseball did the right thing by banning steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Don't try to rewrite history. And, if you're not removing the records of Palmero or McGuire, just leave Bonds along. In fact, just leave them all alone.

Besides, if you guys hadn't juiced up the ball and made the strike zone minuscule, we wouldn't be having these arguments now.

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