Tuesday, August 07, 2007
756* (Or, Can We Get On With Our Baseball Lives Now?)
And so, like so many things with baseball, with the crack of a bat, it is ended. One home run king steps aside, another takes his place. Barry Lamar Bonds, for better or worse, is the the new all-time home run leader in Major League Baseball. And, believe or not, the game of baseball did not collapse onto itself the moment Washington Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik's fifth inning, 3-2 offering traveled 435 feet into the stands at San Francisco's AT&T Park. The game, and the games, will continue.
In many ways, Bonds' 756th blast was anti-climatic. It wasn't a matter of if he would usurp Hank Aaron's 33-year-old record, it was when. Baseball fans who couldn't stand Bonds for whatever reason - the suspicions about his alleged pharmaceutical assistance, his less-than-cordial relations with the press, the fact that he comes across as not so nice (i.e. an asshole) - had to prepare themselves for the cold, hard truth that Aaron's hold on the homer mark was finite. It had to be tempered with the realization that Bonds, physical appearance and other factors notwithstanding, is still innocent in the official eyes of baseball, having never failed a drug test. That, even if it's likely that he has stuffed steroids or human growth hormone or God knows what into his system, that he is far from alone in the annals of baseball in doing so. That the Hall of Fame is filled with less-than-savory folk, including drunkards, thieves and Klansmen, not to mention Ty Cobb, who didn't get where they were because they were nice guys. That with all of Bonds' faults, and there are plenty of them, what he was on the verge of accomplishing was still pretty damn cool.
So Bonds did it, smashing that specially marked baseball into the cold Bay Area air, plunging a fan (in a Mets jersey, no less!) into his 15 minutes of fame and Bonds into immortality (again). The event was marked with delirium in Bonds' home ballpark, but also with reverence, especially when, in a surprise move, the Jumbotron played a message from Aaron himself, who showed his usual class in heartedly congratulating his successor. (Aaron himself was in a self-exile of sorts in Puerto Rico, escaping the clamor and the inevitable question he would get about whether he thought Bonds had cheated - a question that Aaron can't win for answering no matter what he says.) Then Bonds was handed a microphone by his godfather, one William Howard Hays, and Bonds did something that he very rarely does - he spoke from his heart, thanking his teammates, the San Francisco fans, even the Nationals for understanding what this moment meant to him, and finally breaking down when referencing his family and especially his late father, Bobby. At that moment of rare emotion, I thought of Bob Dole in 1996, who could never overcome the albatross of being a mean old man until the last days of his campaign against Bill Clinton when, the race already lost, he loosened up and relaxed and showed his softer side. Had Bonds been this open with the rest of us all along, I wondered, would we be so hard on him today? Would we have given him more of the benefit of the doubt?
Anyway, it's over now. Sure, Bonds will break the home-run mark with every four-bagger he hits for the rest of his career. But for now, there are bigger fish to fry. There are pennant races that are shaping up to be barnburners - including, shock upon shocks, my beloved Cubs, who are only one game out of first place in the NL Central as of today. And ESPN can let go of their Giants caravan after airing a last-place team's games for several nights in a row. And baseball, always the national pastime, can continue. Because it's bigger than one man, or even one record.
P.S. Don't feel bad for Mike Bacsik, for even as he joins Al Downing, Steve Trachsel and Ralph Branca as the footnote for a historic home run. There are pitchers in the minors who would kill for the chance to be such a footnote in the big leagues. But consider this - the moment I read the article earlier today about how Bacsik's father kept Hank Aaron from hitting his 756th home run in 1976, I knew it was going to happen tonight for Bonds. 'Cause that's how baseball works.
P.P.S. You can speculate all you want about whether Aaron should have physically been at AT&T Park tonight to see his record pass to Bonds' mantle. But Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, had no excuse for his absence. His contempt for Bonds - and his devotion to Aaron, his friend and former player when the slugger wrapped up his career with Selig's Milwaukee Brewers - are well-known. But sometimes you have to be bigger than the moment, and bigger than your own feelings. Worse, Selig's no-show brought back memories of when Aaron was snubbed by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn the night he passed Babe Ruth with homer No. 715 in 1974. That faux pas stung more, but Selig not being in San Francisco was almost as unforgivable. The day he gives up his title will be a great day for baseball. He can't be gone soon enough.
P.P.P.S. ESPN reports that Selig called Bonds in the clubhouse after Bonds left the game in the sixth inning. Boo freaking hoo.