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Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world.
Those were some of the first words out of the mouth of Vin Scully after Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974. What a marvelous sentiment. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to still be able to feel that way about historic achievements in baseball?
Aaron hit that home run 33 years ago. Tuesday night in San Francisco, Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record, driving a pitch from Mike Bacsik of the Washington Nationals over the fence in the deepest part of Your Call Is Very Important to Us Park for career homer No. 756.
The home fans cheered, naturally. Bonds listened to a surprising video message of congratulations from Aaron, who had been keeping his distance from the chase all year, saying at one point that he didn’t even know how to spell Bonds’ name. Bonds gave a little speech, accepted congratulations from teammates and family.
It almost looked and felt like a regular old celebration of a record being broken. It wasn’t, of course. Nothing is that simple with Barry Bonds, except for some of those home fans and the local TV announcers, who steadfastly refuse to mention steroids or controversy. Listening to Giants broadcasts, you’d never know Bonds was anything other than a great player.
Unless you looked closely. Then you’d have noticed no team officials on the field to congratulate Bonds other than Willie Mays, who has a job with the organization but was there as Bonds’ godfather. You’d have noticed no one representing Aaron or Ruth’s family.
I’ve been thinking and writing for a while now that Bonds is getting a little bit of a raw deal, that he has become the scapegoat for a whole era of drug abuse and cheating, that to dismiss his achievements as steroid- and human growth hormone-fueled is overly simplistic because we don’t know what effect drugs have on baseball performance and we don’t know which players and which pitchers were on the juice when.
But that doesn’t mean I — a home fan, after all — can enjoy this moment any more than most anybody else. I believe Bonds’ record is legitimate, that he really did hit all those home runs, that a lot of our reaction as a society to the steroid mess is in-the-moment hysteria — why aren’t we equally upset about amphetamines?
And Bonds’ record still feels somehow unreal to me. I’ve got an asterisk going.
Yahoo Sports may have provided a telescoped view of how history will treat Bonds’ record. Moments after the home run, the site’s main image featured the legend “756*” superimposed on a photo of Bonds swinging. An hour later, “756*” had become “756.”
We’re already seeing that change. I’m not the only one who has backed off the bashing of Bonds lately. Jeff Pearlman, who wrote the book “Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero” about Bonds, spoke to ESPN Tuesday night and, while expressing disgust at Bonds breaking Aaron’s record, had to admit, “This might not be a popular opinion right now.”
History will decide how Bonds’ home run record will be viewed. History’s a bit of a fool sometimes. It can forget the things that seemed important at the time. Then again, we can be fools too, misjudging what’s important because we’re too close.
“A rough, unruly man who is constantly playing dirty ball. He … adopts every low and contemptible method that his erratic brain can conceive to win a play by a dirty trick.”
Not Bonds. That description is from a newspaper account quoted by Bill Felber in his new book, “A Game of Brawl: The Orioles, the Beaneaters, and the Battle for the 1897 Pennant.” The man being described was John McGraw, then the Orioles third baseman, later the manager of the New York Giants, and today considered one of the game’s great geniuses. Erratic brain indeed.
His combativeness and love for dirty tricks are now seen not as character flaws but as colorful artifacts of a rollicking time.
Someday, I think, Bonds will be viewed as a product of his era. Hard to imagine future generations will look back on this one the way we look back on McGraw’s, as an age of charmingly roguish rapscallions. But we can’t expect all those unborn sports fans to share our worldview and prejudices.
Unfortunately, those future fans, awash in controversies and dilemmas we can’t even imagine, will probably look back on our era, with its steroid and HGH scandals, as being simple and innocent. We know it isn’t. The present never is. It’s messy and complicated and hard to figure.
As Bonds circled the bases Tuesday, his relief at reaching the milestone was palpable. I felt relief too. This complex, complicated, confusing chase is finally over. Hardly a marvelous moment, more like the end of something I’d been anxious to see end.
After years now of wondering how I’d feel when Barry Bonds, who plays for my team, who’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen, who’s one of the most disagreeable public figures of my lifetime, broke Hank Aaron’s career home run record, at last, I had the answer.
The answer is I don’t know.
Previous column: Tom Glavine: Last of his kind?
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Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan
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