OUT HERE on the other end of the rabbit hole on Sunday night a reporter asked Barry Bonds--fresh off his 713th home run, the last he would ever hit with any other slugger between him and Hank Aaron's record 755--if his inevitable passing of Babe Ruth would mean he was better than the Bambino. "I don't know yet," Bonds said. Then he added more assuredly, "The numbers speak for themselves."
Not anymore they don't, not on this end, where the second eclipsing of Ruth's 714 home runs is bringing about not the usual celebration of the sport's numerical underpinnings but the final deconstruction of them.
Steroids did to baseball what Watergate did to the presidency. They ended what had been an organic trust in the institution, and there is no going back. Bondsis H.R. Haldeman, the guy who bragged, "Every president needs an s.o.b.,and I'm Nixon's." Bonds has lasted longer and slugged more prodigiously than any of his notorious Steroid Era contemporaries. McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Canseco ... all of them long gone since the March 17, 2005, congressional hearings on steroid use in the national pastime.
"I think it's more than funny that all of them who were there are just gone--just fallen off the face of the earth," says Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who was seated beside the suspect hitters that day, as an advocate for a stronger steroid policy.
So it is left to Bonds, however chemically enhanced he may be, to remind us of what has been breached, which he did last weekend in Philadelphia. His pursuit of Ruth and Aaron is a recalibration of statistical values done in real time, not the revisionism of the hocus-pocus seasons of 1998 and 2001. That process is, as evidenced last weekend, difficult and ugly and profane. And maybe that's because it is more about us than it is about Bonds. He only hits the home runs.We must decide what to make of them.
Take Bonds's homerun on Sunday night, which, given its launch angle, trajectory and hang time,was befitting a domestic airline designation: Flight 713. With equal parts ferocity and poetry Bonds's bat collided with a plump 90-mph sinker from Phillies righthander Jon Lieber, the violence of his bat speed tempered by a perfectly balanced turn into the ball with his shoulders and hips. The baseball kept soaring into the cool of the night until a sign on the facing of the upper deck of Citizens Bank Park got in its way. Many fans, who spent the weekend mocking Bonds, instinctively allowed a cheer out of admiration for the blow.
Everything about the home run was majestic--well, except that it smacked not far from a got juice? poster, that it landed among several fans holding asterisk signs and that behind the Giants' dugout, not five seats away from Bonds's cheering mother, Pat, a man held up a sign that simply said, cheater. Can an athlete be called a more pejorative name than that?
Bonds's pursuit of Ruth has not only had its historical impact diminished by the steroid issue,but--outside his blindly loyal safe haven of San Francisco--the chase has also generated some astonishingly negative vibes. Included among the signs in the leftfield seats in Philadelphia were ones that read, Hey Barry, move your head, we can't see, and one about 60 feet in length that read, Ruth did it on hotdogs & beer. Aaron did it with class. How did you do it?
The worst, though,was a rare broadside shot at Bonds taken early last week by a fellow player,pitcher Cory Lidle of the Phillies. He dismissed Bonds's record 73 homers in 2001 ("I don't think it's legitimate," Lidle told the Philadelphia Daily News) as well as his career total as products of Bonds's alleged steroid use, detailed in Game of Shadows. (Bonds has repeatedly denied knowingly using any banned substances.) Said Lidle to the Daily News, "You can maybe take what he had done in his prime, before his head started growing at an enormous rate, and just make those projections. Say that 'this is what he could have done.' Maybe it's 550 home runs. I don't know. It definitely wouldn't have been anything close to 700."
Only a few days earlier Schilling, when asked why more players don't rail about Bonds, said,"It's not worth it. Nobody wants Barry's baggage. The minute you say something you've got the national media running to you, so it's easier to say nothing."
Giants manager Felipe Alou grew so weary of answering questions about Bonds that last Fridayand Saturday, he cut off reporters who asked them. "Ahh!" he groaned after a 4-1 loss on Saturday, the third of what would become four straight defeats. "I've been talking awhile for Barry. I wish he could talk to you guys."
Bonds, though, would duck the roughly 100 bored, foul-tempered reporters with astonishing quickness for a 41-year-old mound of a man with a bad right knee. (On the basepaths on Saturday, he tried unsuccessfully to jump over a ground ball.) Bonds did hold a news conference on Sunday night after 713, refusing, however, to answer any steroid-related questions.
Meanwhile,teammates groused about the scores of reporters staking out Bonds's locker as well as the ubiquitous minions filming his ESPN show, Bonds on Bonds. Said one Giant, "[The camera crew] just gets in the way, being around constantly." (The show, essentially a Bonds infomercial underwritten by ESPN, has tanked, drawing fewer viewers than the forgettable game show Teammates, which aired last year in the same time slot and was canceled.)
Bonds himself, really, is no longer the core of the problem of how to regard his 715th homerun. Most people, even most Giants fans, have him pegged as a serial steroid user (hardly unique to his era) who seemingly could be slapped with a federal indictment on perjury charges at any time. It's what to do with his numbers,and those of his whole playing generation, that really is the divisive issue. Bonds can pass Ruth in home runs but, in the new math caused by the Steroid Era, have less credibility accrued.
"The only time people ever booed Mark McGwire in 1998--anywhere--was when he bunted the first pitch of batting practice," said Giants pitcher Matt Morris, a teammate of McGwire's then and of Bonds's now. "People loved him. This is the exact opposite. With Bonds, people are upset and are not happy for him."
It will be a long time, if ever, before the kind of happy delusion that was 1998 can take us on a blissful, unquestioning joyride again. We know and suspect too much now. Maybe you will root for Albert Pujols to hit 62 home runs this season and assign that total greater value than Bonds's 73 or McGwire's 70 or Sosa's 66, even if the record book does not. Call it the people's record.
In any case,baseball can't be the same anymore, not when Bonds can hit his 715th home run and its superiority to 714 lacks absolute clarity. No wonder so many people arebooing.
For more on Bonds's passing the Babe, including a photogallery of Bonds's milestone homers, go to SI.com/baseball.