The world of sports awaits, ambivalently, the moment when Barry Bonds hits the 715th home run of his baseball career. The event is inevitable, like the opening of the film version of The Da Vinci Code (as though the book were not awful and ubiquitous enough). If you follow sports, you cannot ignore the Bonds quest. Even if you didn’t follow sports, you would be hard pressed to avoid it.
I never cared much for royalty, one way or the other, but for years it seemed as though, every time I opened a newspaper or turned on the television, there was some new item about Princess Di. There was no escaping her. Likewise with Bonds, who scowls as effortlessly as the late princess smiled.
Three or four seasons back, people who cherished baseball’s history and legends would argue about whether Bonds was the greatest hitter who ever played the game. His numbers, certainly, made a strong case, and in baseball, the numbers are sovereign. Babe Ruth’s numbers were, for years, the gold standard by which power hitters were measured. Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, and 714 over the length of his career. These records seemed magisterial and invulnerable.
Then, in 1961, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees began hitting home runs at a pace that threatened Ruth’s single-season record. There was a controversy of near theological proportions over the validity of this feat. Ruth got the 60 in a season lasting 154 games, you see, and Maris would be playing in 162. What if he got number 60, and even 61, in one of the eight additional games?
Baseballs fans and writers argued feverishly over that one. In the end, Maris got 61. But he tied and broke the record in those extra eight games. So his name went into the record book, ahead of Ruth’s, but with an asterisk. To his fans, this seemed like a smear against Maris’ good name. Keepers of the tablets insisted that it was only just. Eventually, baseball dropped the asterisk.
Then, Henry Aaron did something even more improbable. In 1974, he passed the mythic, mystic number 714. While there was no asterisk, Aaron did receive death threats. Some baseball fans take their records that seriously. But by the time he retired in 1976, Aaron had hit 755 home runs in his magnificent career.
Ruth was still the original power hitter; the player who had made the home run the crux of the game. But other men now had the numbers. And numbers don’t lie … or do they?
In 1998, two suspiciously bulked-up ball players began hitting home runs at a pace that would plainly take them beyond Ruth’s and Maris’s for a single season. Mark McGuire of the St. Louis Cardinals eventually hit 70. Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs homered 66 times. The next season, McGuire hit 65 and Sosa finished with 63. Plainly, a new era had arrived.
Eventually we would learn that it was a case of better hitting through chemistry. But before the secret was exposed–and it was not concealed in a Leonardo da Vinci painting–baseball experienced Barry Bonds.
He had been a very good player who, in the late 90s, was entering what should have been the twilight of his career. A Hall-of-Fame player, perhaps–not in the same class as his Godfather, Willie Mays, but the equal of, say, Reggie Jackson.
Then, something happened. Bonds got bigger and his bat got faster and he began hitting both with power and for average at an almost otherworldly pace. In 2001, he blew past McGuire’s 70 and finished with 73 home runs. For those devoted to the numbers, this was more than 20 percent better than Maris.
Bonds launched home runs over the next couple of seasons at a clip that made it seem certain that, barring injury or some non-baseball obstacle, he would blow by Ruth, and then Aaron, just has he had breezed past Mays at 660 in April 2004.
Then came the confirmation of what many skeptics had long believed. Turns out the big hitters, including Bonds, were all “juiced.” Those towering home runs and astonishing new records had been purchased through the power of steroids. And since steroids were banned by baseball, the big hitters had been cheating.
Among their other side-effects, steroids tend to alter the user’s moods and make him prone to outbursts of anger, and even violence. So the drugs accounted not only for Bonds’ performance at the plate but also his generally surly posture toward teammates, the press, and the fans. If Princess Di wanted desperately for the whole world to love her, Bonds made it pretty clear that he would just as soon the world went and climbed a tree.
The history of baseball is full of legends who put up the numbers on the field and were miserable human beings off of it. Ty Cobb, who still holds the record for the game’s highest lifetime batting average (.367), was a near monster, paranoid and violent right to the end. In one of the great magazine articles, “The Fight to Live,” Al Stump paints a portrait of Cobb in his psychotic final days. When they ended, only three mourners attended his funeral.
Pete Rose racked up more lifetime hits than Cobb, whose 4,191 once seemed an unassailable number, like Ruth’s 60 / 714. Rose, of course, is banned from the Hall-of-Fame for gambling that included making bets on the team he was managing. This is baseball’s prime sin, and Rose remains either too obtuse or too narcissistic to recognize it.
Several legendary pitchers “doctored” the ball on their way to the Hall-of-Fame. Like steroids, the spitball is illegal, but nobody seems to resent, say, Gaylord Perry’s gaudy lifetime numbers, probably because he wasn’t putting something into his body (quite the opposite, in fact) to improve his performance. Also, it takes skill to throw a spitter, and guile to get away with it. Shooting steroids is just something sneaky you do when nobody is watching.
The feeling among many baseball purists, then, is that Bonds and his numbers are sullied and unworthy. He still denies that he “knowingly” used illegal substances, but the possibility remains that he will be indicted for perjury on this distinction. And fans are left wondering how to react when Bonds passes Ruth’s old number and, worse, goes on to eclipse Aaron.
The game has an easy out on the “coming soon to a ballpark near you” 715th. Baseball does not celebrate when someone becomes the number-two at anything. There will be no official ceremony, though Bonds’ team–the San Francisco Giants–may make a fuss if he hits 715 on home ground.
As for Aaron’s record … well, far and wide, the hope is that Bonds will never get there. He is injured–running on knees that are bone-on-bone–and he may just hang it up after this year. But he has been so obsessively single-minded in his pursuit of the record that one wonders if a little pain–even a lot of pain–will deter him. Consider, after all, the risks he has already taken with the chemicals he has used and the grand jury testimony he has given.
So, say Bonds takes the prize soon and the new number belongs to him. What then? Should there be an asterisk next to his name in the record book?
Perhaps, but that probably will not be necessary. In achieving this record, Bonds will have succeeded in sullying all records. Maybe fans will be forced back into baseball as narrative, instead of focusing, like a bunch of accountants, on statistics. Many fans find the obsession with numbers tiresome and deceptive (look at John Updike’s argument in his seminal New Yorker piece, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” for the non-numerical argument why Ted Williams is the game’s greatest hitter).
There used to be a saying in baseball, “Statistics tell the story.” Thanks to Bonds, we can now say with confidence, “No, actually they don’t.”
—Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.