Monday, July 23, 2007
Barry's day in the Sun
Some time this week, Barry Bonds will hit a home run that will break the all time record of career home runs, currently held by Hank Aaron. His name will then be listed at the top of a very select list of famous baseball players. They are all in the Hall of Fame.
Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, and Lou Gehrig are stars from the past whose names are on the list of Home Run Legends. More recently, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Ken Griffey Jr. have hit “dingers” more than 500 times to earn recognition. Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees will hit his 500th next week.
Aaron ended his career with 755 home runs. Ruth had 714, and that record stood for many years until “Hammerin’ Hank of the Braves” knocked his 715th into the bullpen on the 8th of April, 1974, to take over bragging rights.
Throughout his illustrious career, Aaron was a model baseball player. No doubt he endured some of the harassment that blacks faced when the colour barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson fifty years ago. Ruth’s record had stood for ages, and many baseball fans were somehow threatened by the fact that a black man was about to wear the crown as the home run leader.
In an ESPN interview earlier this season, Aaron talked of his battles to break Ruth’s record. “I received a lot of hate mail. There was a lot of resentment across the country; however, some wonderful things have happened to me since that time.”
After Aaron rounded the bases, the baseball world remained the same. There were other records to be broken, other milestones to set. Roger Maris went through extreme discomfort in 1961 as he challenged Ruth’s record of 60 homers in a season. He suffered hair loss, anxiety, loss of confidence. But he did hit that sixty-first home run to get his name on the top of the list.
George Sisler had 257 base hits in 1920, a record that stood until recently when Ichiro Suzuki passed him on the hit list. Sisler’s daughter attended the game, and was overwhelmed when Ichiro approached her and graciously apologized for breaking her father’s record.
But the records will continue to be broken. Some may last forever. Ted Williams is the last Major League Baseball player to hit better than .400. His batting average in 1941 was .406. A little research indicates that he stands 17th on the list, as 16 others had higher averages than he. Names like Sisler, Cobb, Hornsby, Keeler, and Shoeless Joe Jackson appear on that list.
There has been more dialogue about Bonds’ assault on Aaron’s record than any other individual event in baseball. Most of that chatter stems from the usage of materials to enhance performance, and from Bonds’ surly attitude for the past several years. He has been antagonistic toward many baseball fans, and especially toward the media.
In a general discussion of steroids, human growth hormones and the like, baseball experts recently placed the number of players who have “experimented” at 70%. That list includes pitchers and hitters. In some observers’ minds, the playing field was relatively level because the strikers and the throwers were playing with the same chemical advantage.
Most Canadians remember with some shame the day when Ben Johnson handed his gold medal back to the Olympic Organizing Committee. He had tested positive for an anabolic steroid, and had lost his medal and his world record. His first response to the decision was a similar one that we hear today: Deny, Deny, Deny. Subsequent testing and conversation finally sealed his fate. There was no doubt that he had been using the material. His fate was sealed.
The situation is slightly different with the Major League baseball players. At the time when many of them gained significant weight, especially muscle fibre, there were no testing procedures used by the league. Only recently has baseball implemented programs to test for the drugs.
In this game of “Catch me if you can”, players are enticed by drugs that are not yet detectible. There are others who are caught using prohibited substances. They are now receiving stiff penalties, potentially career-threatening.
Hank Aaron has left the door open for Bonds this year: “I said that until it is proven that he took steroids, he shouldn’t be condemned.”
Aaron left with game with impressive statistics. He still leads the Majors in Runs Batted In, and only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb had more hits than he did.
The genial Peter Gammons, a well-respected baseball writer, had this to say recently about the controversy. “Before 1920, we had the ‘dead ball era’. From 1920 to 1950, Ruth was the dominant player. From 1950 to 1970, Aaron was the best player in baseball. For the past 20 years, the steroid era, Barry Bonds has been the greatest player.”
The balls used against Bonds will be specially marked as commemorative, likely with identifying computer chips to verify the authenticity. The ball that breaks the record will be worth at least a million dollars.
Bonds will face the best pitching the Atlanta Braves have to offer: John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. He will try to yank a couple of dingers into McCovey Cove, in his home San Francisco park.
Barry has always tried to “hit ‘em where they ain’t”. In this case, in the seats or in the drink. He will then be regarded as number one, but, for some, always with an asterisk.
Enjoy the game.
July 23, 2007