Ten years after Barry Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron with his record-setting 756th home run, it's safe to say that there's still little affection for the moment, the player or the new standard he set. But with no challenger to his record on the horizon, it's one that we'll have to live with for a long time. It should be more than that.
Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record with his 715th home run on April 8, 1974. Immortalized by not one but two famous broadcast calls—Milo Hamilton for the Braves, Vin Scully for the Dodgers—the moment is indelible. It made household names out of the pitcher who served it up (former All-Star Al Downing) and of the player who caught the ball in the bullpen (reliever Tom House). We even know the story of the two teenagers, Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay, who ran onto the field to congratulate a very surprised Aaron while he rounded second base. Neither the long-deceased Bambino nor commissioner Bowie Kuhn were in attendance, but the celebration of the homer included Aaron's parents, Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., who offered $25,000 of the ball (which House instead gave to Aaron).
As for Bonds, the details are less ingrained in memory. No. 756 came at San Francisco’s AT&T Park off Nationals lefty Mike Bacsik, a journeyman who would pitch just 14 more games in the majors, never adding another win to his career total of 10. Giants play-by-play man Duane Kuiper (the author of one major league homer in his 12-year career) accompanied the shot with a memorable call, but up against Scully's note of the significance of the moment—"What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time idol"—it doesn’t carry anywhere near the gravitas.
Fireworks ensued. Bonds was always beloved in San Francisco, the city where he had played 14 years previously and where both his godfather, Willie Mays, and his dad, Bobby, who died in 2003, had starred. Mays was in attendance but both Aaron and commissioner Bud Selig were absent. The former sent a pre-recorded video message that praised Bonds's “skill, longevity and determination,” and congratulated him: “I move over and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement.” The latter, who had been on hand in San Diego three days earlier for number 755, spoke to Bonds by phone after he was removed from the game. The fan who caught the ball, Matt Murphy, soon sold it to designer Marc Ecko for $752,467. Ecko defaced the milestone souvenir by having an asterisk laser-cut into the cowhide before he donated it to the Hall of Fame.
Officially, the asterisk doesn't exist, not in the MLB record books or in any baseball encyclopedia or statistics website. In fact, not a single number from the so-called “Steroid Era” has been expunged. Still, the asterisk lingers in the minds of a certain segment of fans and media who feel that Bonds never would have reached Aaron's mark without the help of performance-enhancing drugs.
By now the story is familiar. According to reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, authors of the book Game of Shadows, Bonds took issue with the outpouring of attention accorded to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during the 1998 season, when McGwire broke Roger Maris's single-season home run mark of 61. Though he was already a three-time MVP with 411 home runs under his belt and a clear path to Cooperstown in front of him, Bonds was motivated to take PEDs to keep up, not unlike hundreds of lesser players whose futures may have been in greater doubt.
In 2001, despite being routinely pitched around, Bonds broke McGwire's three-year-old mark with 73 homers. In September 2003, his name surfaced as one of six major league players connected to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, which was at the center of a doping scandal involving dozens of athletes given previously undetectable steroids. In December of that year, Bonds testified in front of a grand jury that he had received two such steroids, "the Clear" and "the Cream," from trainer Greg Anderson during the 2003 season but that he had been told that they were flaxseed oil and a rubbing balm for arthritis.
The BALCO case and its surrounding controversy lingered for years, overshadowing Bonds' climb to 756. At the time, Major League Baseball had no means of testing for PEDS or issuing suspensions, the product of a complete institutional failure that was decades in the making. Only after that failure was exposed to the public, first with the 2005 Congressional hearings (from which Bonds was exempt due to the ongoing BALCO trial) and then via the 2007 Mitchell Report, did the owners and the players’ union implement a drug policy with teeth.
PED use didn’t start with McGwire, Sosa and Bonds' smashing of home run marks. In fact, the first known attempt of a ballplayer using a testosterone-based performance enhancer dates back more than a century prior. In 1889, Pud Galvin, already the first pitcher to reach 300 wins, openly used “Brown-Séquard Elixir,” a concoction that contained an extract from monkey testicles and was supposed to impede the aging process while boosting strength and virility. The Washington Post celebrated his dosing (“If there still be doubting Thomases who concede no virtue of the elixir, they are respectfully referred to Galvin’s record in yesterday’s Boston-Pittsburgh game”), but his career was nearing the finish line, and nobody objected when the Veterans Committee elected Galvin to the Hall in 1965. Ruth himself allegedly self-injected an extract from sheep testicles in 1925.
PED usage by baseball players evolved over decades within a culture of both competitiveness and permissiveness. Amphetamines became widely available in clubhouses in the late 1950s in the form of “greenies,” used to fight fatigue and gain physical and mental edges. Hall of Famers from Mays, Aaron and Mickey Mantle to Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell and Frank Thomas have been connected to amphetamines, some by their own accounts, and they were hardly alone. We generally don’t wring our hands about their usage, which helped keep players in the lineup and closer to the tops of their games as the major league season grew longer and travel more extensive (both byproducts of expansion). There were no real deterrents in place even after amphetamines were regulated through the Controlled Substances Act as of 1970. And while McGwire and fellow Bash Brother Jose Canseco may have begun baseball's popularization of steroids in the late 1980s, House, the man who caught Aaron's famous home run, told a reporter in 2005 that the drugs were widespread in the game in the 1960s and ’70s. “We were doing steroids they wouldn’t give to horses,” he said, estimating that six or seven pitchers per team were experimenting with steroids or HGH in that era.
So to pretend that the game was somehow pure in one era and impure in another is disingenuous. The dirty secret of baseball history is that the playing field is rarely as level as we'd like to believe. The Hall of Fame is filled with rogues who sought competitive edges in every way possible, and would spike their grandmothers if a game were on the line. The 1890s Orioles were known for grabbing the belts of opposing baserunners so that they couldn't advance, cutting across the diamond when the umpires' backs were turned and hiding extra baseballs in the long outfield grass when coming up with the one in play was too much trouble. Ruth set his home record in a time of segregation, when black players were barred from playing; likewise for Ty Cobb and his all-time hits record, which was eventually broken by Pete Rose, who… well, that's another story. Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton and Whitey Ford are famous for the ball-doctoring that helped them earn bronze plaques.
Aaron, who debuted in the majors in 1954, was part of the trailblazing wave of players who reshaped the game in the wake of Jackie Robinson’s debut. He played under conditions that conferred advantages as well, notably including two waves of expansion and diluted talent. Ninety-one of his homers came against the Mets and the Astros, established in 1962, and another 40 against the Padres and the Expos, established in 1969; on a per plate appearance basis, his home run rate rose by 10% against those teams relative to the rest of the majors. In 1966, the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, where Fulton County Stadium's 1,000-foot elevation was the highest in the majors until the Rockies joined the league in 1993. In nine years at "the Launching Pad," as it came to be known, Aaron hit 192 homers, compared to 145 on the road. The pattern is hardly unusual among the all-time great sluggers, though both Ruth (347 at home, 367 on the road) and Bonds (379 at home, 383 on the road) are exceptions.
Bonds, beyond the chemicals that may or may not have helped him, was aided in his pursuit of 762 by expansion (to Colorado in 1993 and to Arizona in '98, when it supplanted Atlanta for the majors’ second-highest elevation), the increased prevalence of body armor that enabled him to crowd the plate, and perhaps by juiced baseballs as well. On a per batted ball basis, the majors’ home run rate from 1993 to 2010—“the Steroid Era,” and then some—was 31% to 56% higher than the five years prior to the start of that window, with balls flying out of the yard at unprecedented rates.
I have to admit that at the time, I was as sour about Bonds surmounting Aaron as many other fans, as much annoyed by the constant cut-ins to his every at-bat as anything else, but resentful of the possibility that he would topple one of the games’ true heroes. But some words written by SI contributor Joe Sheehan, then at Baseball Prospectus, as Bonds was bearing down on Aaron, have stuck with me:
"Should Bonds get to 756 home runs, it will mean only that he hit more home runs than anyone else in the game’s history. Doing so doesn’t make him a better person than Hank Aaron—it is irrelevant to that question entirely—nor does his superiority in one statistic necessarily make him a better baseball player. Hank Aaron’s legacy as a player is not diminished one whit by the fact that his name is no longer atop a list of names and numbers. His greatness isn’t defined by a number, and his accomplishments remain just as impressive…
Statistics are a record of what happened in baseball games. We make lists, but those lists don’t rank men, they rank their doings. All statistics, however, need to be put into context. That applies when comparing two pitchers who work in disparate run environments, two prospects who play three levels apart, or two Hall of Fame outfielders who find themselves next to each other on a list. Beyond statistical context, however, there’s historical context. The narratives of Ruth and Maris, of Aaron and Bonds, will be written and rewritten, and their places in the history of baseball will be determined not by any statistic, but by the body of their work and their impact on the game."
Ten years after the event, Bonds' place in history is still being debated, but it looks as though he will make it into the Hall of Fame before his eligibility on the writers' ballot runs out in 2022. Aided by Selig’s perspective-inducing election and the sun-setting of writers long removed from covering the game in favor of younger writers less hardened against the slugger, Bonds reached 53.8% of the vote in the most recent balloting, his fifth year of eligibility, a strong indicator of future election.
Meanwhile, 762 is a number that may stand longer than the 33 years that 755 did. Among active players, only Albert Pujols (608) is within 300 homers of Bonds. At the age of 37, Pujols’s performance has collapsed; while he has 17 homers this year, he's hitting at a level (.230/.275/.382) that would be unplayable if not for his stature and the (gulp) four more seasons he has on his contract. Miguel Cabrera, 34, is next on the list with 459 homers, and he's hit just 13 this year, down from 38 last year. Even if he were to pick up the pace and hit another 13 to finish out this season, he would need to average 37 homers—a total he's surpassed just once since 2013—over the next eight seasons to reach Bonds in his age-42 season.
You don't even need to break out PECOTA (as I did on the occasion of Pujols' 600th homer) to appreciate how far off the rest of the pack is. Ryan Braun, 33, has 297 home runs and would need to average 40 homers a year—he's reached that level only once—for the next 11 years just to get in the ballpark (that would be 737, assuming he doesn't hit another homer this year). Unlike Bonds, Braun does have a PED suspension to his name, so he'd probably get a frosty reception upon approaching the record as well. Jay Bruce, 30, has 270 home runs and would need 12 seasons of 40 homers per year to get to 750; by the way, he's never hit more than 34. And Chris Davis, 31, has hit 258 homers but would have work to do even after reeling off another dozen 40-homer seasons. The good news is that he's actually hit as many as 53 in a season, but the bad news is that he’s trending downward, with just 17 this year.
The only player under 30 with more than 200 homers is 27-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, who has 244 including an NL-high 36 this year. Assuming he stays healthy, he'll top 40 for the first time in his eight-year career, but if he's going to catch Bonds, he'll need to make a habit of that, because he's nearly 13 40-homer seasons away from the mark.
Next on the home run list among the under-30 set is Mike Trout, who hit his 190th longball on Sunday, the day before his 26th birthday. He certainly has a shot at Bonds; a mere 14 40-homer seasons would bring him to 749 heading into his age-40 season. But keep in mind that his career high is 41 homers, and only one other time has he topped 30. Bryce Harper, with 149 homers at age 24, is in a similar boat, needing 15 40-homer seasons to get into the picture but having just one so far; with 28 to date this year, he might get to 40 a second time.
Anyone else? Kris Bryant, who like Trout is also in his age-25 season (the cutoff is June 30) is 105 homers behind the Angels centerfielder. Aaron Judge, this year's AL rookie sensation, is also 25, and with 39 homers so far, is 151 behind Trout at the same age. Hey, that's just 18 40-homer seasons away from approaching Bonds, or 14 50-homer seasons and change. Don't wait up. Cody Bellinger, Judge's rookie counterpart in the NL, is just 21 years old, and as of Sunday night, he's 730 homers away. Again, 18 seasons averaging 40 homers—quite a regression considering that he's averaging 57 per 162 games thus far—will give him a shot at the record in his age-40 season. All of which is to say that if we're pointing to players who have yet to complete their rookie seasons as those with the best shots at catching Bonds, then we're a long way from seeing that record topple.
You don't have to love Barry Bonds. You don't even have to like him. But his accomplishments, controversial though they are, aren’t going away, and speaking as someone who has found closure through understanding their context, I can tell you that life is far better on this side.