Yesterday Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron's home run record of 755 lifetime home runs, and my response was...ambivalence. It's undeniably extraordinary achievement, under any circumstances, to hit so many home runs and tie such longstanding record, especially if a player doesn't spend a 20-year career playing for the Colorado Rockies. At the same time, like any fan who has followed baseball for longer the last half-minute, I can't register Bonds's achievement without also recognizing that, as with an untold number of his peers, his skills and longevity have probably been chemically enhanced. It's true that he's never tested positive for steroid or amphetamine use, as far as I know, but he has been implicated in the steroid scandal that has plagued Major League Baseball for some time, and he has tacitly acknowledged that he may have used steroids but didn't realize it. (I don't believe he's stupid, so where does that leave him?)
Unlike some fans and many members of the mainstream sports media, who are apoplectic about Bonds's record-breaking feats (when he hit 73 home runs to break the androstenedioned Mark McGwire's record of 70, or this one), I understand why he and others may have gone this route in the late 1980s and through much of the 1990s: the benefits, in terms of potentially better stats and extended careers, which would lead to multimillion-dollar payoffs, were tremendous. A player who could bash 25 home runs as opposed to his usual 10, or 40 as opposed to 24, or 70 instead of 42, would certainly be in line for much better contract terms after such a season. Major League Baseball, for its part, had inklings that steroid and other drug use was occurring, and yet did little for years because its leaders and management wanted to see increased offense. The pitchers' seasons of 1968 set the sort of negative example against which some owners probably still have nightmares about. In the case of the aforementioned Mark McGwire, Major League Baseball eagerly encouraged his home run race against Sammy Sosa in 1998 as a way of rebuilding fan support after the labor debacles in 1990 and 1994, though it must have been clear that McGwire, an admittedly talented home run hitter, was being fueled by more than skill, determination, will, and luck. I am not sure how to explain Sosa's monster seasons, and I've never been convinced that he was also roided up, but what do I know? He nevertheless remains a subject of some disrepute, his amazing 1998 run and in subsequent years as tainted as Bonds's and McGwire's. In a sense, baseball and the media legitimated what these players were doing, at least until doing so became untenable, because the public found out about it and began to press the issue and ask questions.
Once upon a time I might have been tempted to hang a good deal of the regular sports media trashing of Sosa and Bonds on the fact that they're Black, which would require them to be beyond the beyond of reproach, but it's the case that while Bonds remains a special target, in part because of his personality and in part because of race, sluggers from the last 15 years across the racial and ethnic spectrum are under a cloud. (Earlier this season he hit his 600th, becoming only the fifth player to do so.) Some, like Rafael Palmeiro, who testified before Congress that he was clean only to soon thereafter test positive for steroids, are total outcasts. Others, like Jason Giambi, have admitted to steroid use and are forever tagged. A few, like Frank Thomas, Manny Ramírez, David Ortiz, and Vladimir Guerrero, appear to be above suspicion, while younger stars like Albert Pujols have had to defend their prodigious power.
Current record holder and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron chose to register his response by making no effort to be present at this or recent games, nor at any of the games in which Bonds may break the record. "I don't even know how to spell his name" was Aaron's bizarre and ridiculous comment some weeks ago, but it would make sense if he'd decided, after having praised Bonds in the past, not to certify this most recent achievement or the next one. Who knows what Bonds's final totals will be. I imagine he'll hit 775 or so, if he stays around for another year, and that he'll be elected to the Hall of Fame, though a minority of sportswriters won't be happen about it. He was already a Hall of Fame caliber player up to his transformation into a mega-slugger, and he deserves the honor. I personally won't be that excited about it, but at the risk of cynicism I also won't gainsay him the fact that he gamed his magnificent skills and the game better than any of his peers.
Astonishingly, just hours before Bonds's achievement came another spectacular one, Yankee Álex Rodríguez's 500th home run, making him the youngest player (at 32) to achieve this distinction. Rodríguez is grossly overpaid and a kind of negative-PR machine, but he is also one of the most talented players ever to play the game. He hits home runs like other players hit singles, and even if he has choked when the Yankees have most needed his power, he continues to put up numbers that seem to portend him breaking Bonds's record at some point in the future, especially if he plays till the age of 40 or 42. Without, as far as I can tell, ever having had to turn to steroids or anything similar. Rodríguez has been blasting homeruns at a furious pace this season, and despite slowing down somewhat already has 36. He may end up with 45, which would be a modest total for either league in recent years, but whatever the final tally, he's ensured he'll have his plaque and speech in Cooperstown.
Tonight, remarkably, yet another player established himself as one of baseball's all-time greats. Met Tom Glavine became the 23rd pitcher ever and the 5th left-hander to win 300 games, an even more difficult goal than hitting 3oo or even 400 home runs, especially nowadays when every team uses 5 man rotations, pitchers pitch considerably fewer complete games and fewer innings in general, and many don't make it past the ten-year mark. Glavine, the first active Met pitcher to reach the 300-win mark, is a year younger than me and began pitching the year I graduated from college, 1987; from the beginning he stood apart as one of the best of his generation. For nearly a decade (1993-2002), he was part of one of the best rotations ever, with Greg Maddux (another 300-game winner who's still playing) and John Smoltz. Together they helped ensure that Atlanta was a perennial contender. Glavine continues to pitch well and ought to hang on for a few more years, but with 2 Cy Young awards and now 300 wins in hand, he also can retire and expect to receive his own Hall of Fame call as soon as he's eligible. He definitely deserves it.