As Barry Bonds was playing the Yankees this weekend, I was watching the game in between commercials during the Mets game on SNY. I am a Mets fan, but since Bonds was conveniently playing the other team in town, I took the opportunity to flip channels and get a glimpse of him. This is when I started grumbling (to myself since no one else was in the room) that he was bound to break the home run record set by the legendary Hank Aaron this year. I usually like to see records broken, but this thing called “steroids” sort of ruins it all for me.
I recalled the time Hank Aaron hit number 715 as if it were yesterday. Since I was not around for Babe Ruth’s dingers, I felt privileged to have witnessed Hank’s home run and remember the frenzy of talking about it the next day with my friends at school. We felt like we were all part of history, and since we were Mets fans, the idea that he broke a record held by a Yankee didn’t bother us at all.
Still, there was a good deal going on back in those days that we kids didn’t know about. We didn’t know how difficult it had been earlier in Hank’s career, when he suffered indignities coming into baseball less than a decade after Jackie Robinson paved the way for black ballplayers. We didn’t know about the death threats he had received as he inched closer to the Babe’s home run mark. There must have been a good deal going on inside Number 44’s head as he stepped to the plate and hit the record-breaking homer off another guy wearing the same number on his uniform, but we didn’t know about any of this other stuff.
No, all we knew about was the glorious swing and the great strides taken by Hammerin’ Hank as he rounded the base paths. We saw the stupid fans running after him, forever immortalizing their bravado and foolishness on video. Hank had broken the record and that was fine, but the record almost didn’t matter as much as the idea that we got to see a moment of baseball purity. Ball thrown cleanly; bat against ball; ball soaring over the left field fence into baseball history. It seemed all about the moment: surreal and eternal and it makes me shiver still just thinking about it.
Back in those days we didn’t take for granted when we got to see Hank playing at Shea when the Braves visited New York. I still recall going to games to see opposing players: Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt, Willie Mays, Lou Brock, Fernando Valenzuela, Ozzie Smith, and so many others. One of the amazing things about baseball is the connectivity between generations, the feeling that I having saw Hank play could last forever because I would tell my kids, just as my grandfather told me about seeing Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, and my father spun tales of Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial, and that kind of thing lasts forever, even long after the ballplayers are pushing up daisies in their personal field of dreams.
But at that moment watching Bonds step to the plate (against Roger Clemens no less) I had a bout with the Angel Vic on my right shoulder and the Devil Vic on my left. Angel said, “Oh, let’s give this fellow a pass no matter what he has supposed to have done. He still has accomplished something wonderful.” This was working for a few seconds until Devil groaned, “What’s he going to say when Bonds hits Number 800?” Now, I really was feeling benevolent until Devil said that, and then I started wondering about it all, and Devil added, “How many of those homers were hit when he was juiced?”
In the end the “dramatic” showdown between Roger and Barry resulted in a base on balls. I sighed in relief that number 750 didn’t go sailing over the wall, but it also seemed like Clemens bailed out. I thought he was so tough (you know, this was the guy who threw a splintered bat back at Piazza because he thought Piazza broke his bat on purpose), but in the end he was more Roger Dodger than Buck Rogers.
How many homers will Bonds end up hitting? He could make it to 800 if he hangs around long enough, so this will be the target for A-Rod and any other guys who follow. But, considering what Devil Vic said, there is a serious question hovering over some of those homeruns. How many of his homeruns actually should count? Well, when did Barry start looking like one half of Hans and Franz on Saturday Night Live? We can do the math and subtract however many from the total, but in the end Bonds will retire with his copious amount of homers intact (even if a phantom asterisk forever haunts the final total).
I watched Bonds the other day, but as the countdown brings us closer to the inevitable breaking of the record, I know that I won’t be glued to the set watching as I was the night Hammerin’ Hank thrilled the world. Hank’s homers were all about talent, the purity of the game, and the notion that what happened on the diamond mattered because it was sacred ground. Unfortunately, today we have ballplayers who take steroids and deny it, and they are the worst kind of heretics, because in the end they claim to profess the faith even after they’ve broken the commandments.
Some people don’t care if Bonds breaks the record or not. Some even feel it’s still a record no matter what and must be respected. What will you say when Bonds breaks Aaron’s record? I know I will not have anything to say because I will be speechless. Nothing will ever bring back the purity of the game the way it should be played, the way it was played on that April night so long ago when Hammerin’ Hank sent a ball sailing into the bullpen, broke the Babe’s record, and set the bar so high that some players decided that the only way to reach it was by less than natural means.