The Babe. One of the most cherished names in the history of sports.
At one time, the case could be made that he was the greatest offensive and defensive player in his sport. He changed the way the game of baseball was played. When he hit his 714th home run, it doubled the total of the man in second place on the all-time list. He was a living legend who came to symbolize a sport. He was, and to some still is, baseball. And, posthumously his legend continues to grow.
Now, as Barry Bonds looks to eclipse the Bambino’s number and move into second place, while becoming the all-time home run leader among left-handed hitters, Major League Baseball seems not to think much of it. Sure, Hank Aaron sits in first at 755, and that is undoubtedly the most important number, but it is not the only important number. And anyone who would tell you otherwise is either being intellectually dishonest or is just looking to keep the spotlight off of the stain Bonds has brought to the game.
Certainly Bonds is not the only player who has been implicated in the ongoing steroid scandal, but he is the poster boy of the generation. And the argument can be quite easily made that Barry Bonds has done this to himself. His arrogance, obdurateness and self-righteousness throughout his career isolated him to such a degree that, when the accusations began to fly, nobody jumped up to run to his aid. The fact that his alleged cheating gave him entrée to the most elite company in sports history only compounded the matter with the fans.
Ever since the first box score was tallied, baseball has cherished its reputation as being a game which has numbers and records that stand the test of time. Sure, players changed, as did the game, but you could always compare players’ numbers. There was a sense that there was an objective truth to understanding and knowing a player’s greatness, but the power surge of the mid-90s corrupted the game. Lifelong fans of the sport scrambled to try and understand what the inflated numbers meant with regard to their heroes’ places in history. Who was truly great? Who deserved to be in the Hall of Fame? Who deserved to go in on the first ballot? The objective truth of baseball excellence gave way to finger-pointing, second-guessing, resentment and a new subjective interpretation of America’s pastime. People needed a scapegoat. Enter the inflated head (yes, figuratively and literally) of Barry Bonds.
So now, as Bonds prepares to pass George Herman Ruth, people avert their eyes, MLB in particular. They do not want to admit the historical significance of the event. They say second place does not matter, and we never celebrate second. But that is too simplistic and dishonest a viewpoint. He may be only moving one step closer to Aaron, but he, and the mountain of circumstantial evidence indicating he cheated by using steroids, are about to surpass possibly the greatest icon in the history of sport. And all baseball and its fans can do is run and hide, pretending that it, and in the process, the last 20 years of inflated numbers, never happened. It is the ultimate reality check, indicating finally that what was once thought of as the purest sport played has been corrupted. Permanently.
While MLB, and its desire to drive attendance and recapture the country’s imagination, began this scandal, they know that if ever there was to be a scapegoat on whom they could pawn this black eye and hopefully wrap up the steroid era in a neat little package, it is #25. And Bonds and his attitude made him the perfect target. Were Jeff Bagwell or Frank Thomas chasing history, would they – whom many have speculated also juiced – be subject to such scathing criticism? Would people have created the public witch hunt to find them guilty in the first place? Not likely. But by targeting a loathsome character like Bonds, they can blindly direct their fear of having lost the values of traditional baseball at one man.
Fans, players and media members have long resented Bonds, and the steroid scandal finally gave them a focus for their vitriol and spitefulness. Much like Tom DeLay in politics, Bonds represents one bad apple out of what are probably very many. But he was caught, and the wolves were thirsty for blood and ready to pounce. What is more, they wanted a way to absolve themselves of the knowledge that the sport they once loved betrayed them.
So as he passes the Babe this week, let’s be honest. This is a big deal, but for all of the wrong reasons.Fans despise Bonds, misappropriating their feelings as they mourn the loss of their sacred game and its records, while MLB acts as if nothing has happened. What results is a grey cloud lingering over baseball’s Mount Olympus. So while fans deride him and baseball tries to ignore him, there is no denying the fact that Bonds’ mistakes, having taken place in the context of the most hallowed record column of America’s most storied sport, have marred the history books of a sport that is now, sadly, tainted forever.