Barry Bonds just might be the greatest baseball player to ever pick up a bat. At the age of 40, he is closing in on a record that was previously thought to be untouchable: Hank Aaron's 755 home runs. Pitchers are so intimidated by Bonds that he sees fewer strikes than the Olsen twins see dessert trays. Bonds is thought of by most in the media as a standoffish, arrogant, cocky jerk. He often refuses to give interviews, usually won't sign autographs (even for his teammates' children) and looks like he would just as soon jack you in your grill as accept your compliment of, "Nice hit, Barry." Also, this past season, Bonds has had to answer to charges that he was associated with a little company called BALCO, known to supply certain athletes with performance-enhancing steroids.
All these factors don't exactly make Barry Bonds an easy guy to root for, which is a shame. The guy is without a doubt the most feared slugger in baseball today, and if he stays on his current path he will eclipse Hank Aaron's record by next season. As rough as Barry might get it from the media and the fans, however, he has it easy compared to what Hank Aaron went through.
There are those who would argue that we haven't made much progress in America when it comes to race relations. I would beg to differ, but as a white dude it's easy for me to say that the black man is treated with more respect and dignity in 2004 than he was a few decades back. I've never had to suffer racial epithets being hurled at me by closed-minded and ignorant bigots, but Hank Aaron sure did. To look such hatred in the face and not even blink makes Hank Aaron's accomplishments even more noteworthy. As he closed in on the beloved Babe Ruth's home run record in the mid-'70s, Hank Aaron got letters that threatened his life. Postmarked from cities around the United States, these letters called Hank every racist name in the book. Some went so far as to say, "My gun is watching your every black move."
Aaron was eclipsed by white players like Joe DiMaggio when it came to fan support and appeal. While Aaron's numbers were superior, white America embraced DiMaggio's aloofness and humility, while Aaron's similar attitude was viewed as enigmatic cockiness. Until Hank's home runs started targeting the record of the great Bambino, he was largely ignored on a national level. Had he known the venom and fury that would be directed toward him, he likely would have preferred to stay out of the spotlight.
On April 8, 1974, Aaron drilled home run number 714 into the Braves bullpen. As he rounded the bases, two white hippie kids ran out onto the field to celebrate Hank's accomplishment of beating Babe Ruth's home run record. When asked later if he was afraid, Aaron simply responded that he wasn't because he just figured those kids were happy for him. "I never had anyone run with me before," Hank said. "They were just kids having a good time."
With the acrimony directed towards Aaron for simply having the nerve to challenge the long-standing home run record of the philandering and booze-swilling Babe Ruth, one can easily forgive Barry Bonds for a standoffish attitude. Today's athlete is surrounded by negative sportswriters looking for a big-story angle and by "fans" who feel slighted if the athlete won't give them the time of day on or off the field. Athletes are celebrities who are bothered when they go out to eat, go shopping, go to nightclubs, catch flights in airports, or anywhere they appear in public. If an athlete stops to oblige one autograph request from a kid, a mob will form within five minutes Ã? and every person who didn't get lucky enough to get a meaningless signature will surely tell their friends what a "selfish jerk" the athlete was.
Granted, Bonds hasn't made it easy on himself with his attitude and actions, but his athletic prowess should certainly speak for itself. As of the writing of this column, Bonds had 699 home runs and we're nearing the end of the 2004 season. Also, this year Bonds set the record for intentional walks. That's right, pitchers are so intimidated by the sight of Bonds in the batter's box that they often simply refuse to give him a pitch to swing at.
Ready for the twist? Bonds just might retire from baseball after breaking Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs. Hank Aaron's record is considered to be hallowed ground, and Bonds has said himself that while he'd have no problem leaving Ruth in the dust, Aaron's record would be something else. Barry Bonds has confused and confounded fans, writers and players during his storied career, and retiring with Aaron's record intact might be just the kind of mark Barry would enjoy leaving on baseball.
To have the ability to concentrate while everyone is accusing you of taking steroids, to be able to tolerate intentional walk after intentional walk and to be able to pound home runs out of the park while even your hometown fans jeer you is truly remarkable. To walk away from baseball and leave Hank Aaron's legacy intact would be a tribute so classy that it would erase all doubt about Barry Bonds. Barry lost his father (also a famous baseball player) in 2003 and Willie Mays is his godfather, so there's little doubt that baseball tradition means a lot to him. Don't be at all surprised if Barry hits home run number 715 next season, tips his hat to Hammerin' Hank Aaron and rides off into the sunset. Sportswriters and fans alike would spin out of control, but something tells me Barry Bonds couldn't care less.