The immortal Hank Aaron died earlier today, and I find myself thinking of Barry Bonds.
Which is a little bit of a bummer, but also worth discussing.
On Aug. 7, 2007, I was in attendance at a standing-room-only Pac Bell Park when Bonds hit his 756th career homer off of an obscure Washington lefty named Mike Bacsik. Like all members of the media, I was positioned in the press box, and as ball left bat I’m quite certain most of we ink-stained wretches looked up, watched the path of yet another Barry dinger and found ourselves picturing the same word floating inside our heads: Meh.
It’s not that the moment wasn’t, well, a moment. It was. Here, take a gander …
The thing is (or, the thing was) Barry Bonds cheated. He knew it. We knew it. Everyone pretty much knew it. And if you’re one of those folks who doesn’t consider PED to be cheating—well, at the very least Barry Bonds lied in his repeated insistences that he never used steroids or HGH.
And perhaps that’s not a big deal. Hell, hundreds of players were lying about PED. Still do.
But this, to me, was different. Is different. Back in the summer of 1974, as Hank Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, the Braves slugger received a horrific onslaught of racist letters, racist phone calls, racist threats. Don’t believe me? Here …
And, in large part because of that, Aaron’s 715th home run wasn’t merely a baseball moment. No, it was a civil rights moment—a black man, in the deep south, proudly rounding the bases, not knowing with 100-percent certainty that he would return back to home plate without a bullet being fired from somewhere in the stands.
When Aaron finally retired after the 1976 season, he did so with 755 home runs—a number that mattered (culturally, historically) in the way Roger Maris’ 61 home runs mattered and Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak matters. The figures aren’t mere figures. They represent something. In Maris’ case, it was a near-breakdown in pursuit of a standard. In DiMaggio’s case, it was consistent, undeterred excellence. And in Aaron’s case, it was, well, overcoming. Fighting. Defying. Not allowing hate to slow a person’s pursuit of legend.
For me, 755 remains the greatest record in American sports history.
That, truly, is what pisses me off about Barry Bonds. He cheated, and pretended he didn’t cheat. He lied, and pretended he didn’t lie. In the leadup to 756, he spoke with deference and respect about Aaron, but displayed little of it. Deference and respect doesn’t mean cheating and lying to break a landmark record. It also doesn’t mean putting a legend on the spot, as Bonds (and Major League Baseball) did when Aaron (who refused to attend the games during Bonds’ chase) was asked to issue a congratulatory video statement.
The truth is, Aaron had little-to-no respect for Bonds. He found him (as we all did) unlikeable and rude. He also didn’t believe his records were legitimate; didn’t think they passed the sniff test. For me, the congratulatory video has always stood as an awkward relic from a painful span in the game’s history. A record illegitimately wiped off the map, and the victim praising the culprit.
And now, on the day one of baseball’s all-time greats passes on, I ask you—dear reader—a simple question: How many lifetime home runs did Barry Bonds hit?
Because I was his biographer. And I have no friggin’ idea.
It doesn’t matter.