King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Barry Bonds passing Willie Mays was nothing more than a nice moment because it lacked something essential: A magic number.


Salon Staff
April 15, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

I had trouble getting emotionally involved in Barry Bonds' chase of his 660th and 661st home runs. He hit them this week to draw even with and then pass his godfather, Willie Mays, for third on the all-time list, behind only Henry Aaron's 755 and Babe Ruth's 714.

I'm not sure why I wasn't touched by the whole thing. It didn't have anything to do with Bonds' connection to the BALCO case and whispers that his home run surge of the last few years has been aided by steroids. I know from listening to talk radio that a lot of people are skeptical of Bonds' achievements because of that, but I'm not one of them. Until someone shows me evidence to the contrary, I take Bonds' records at face value.

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I think it has more to do with the way numbers in baseball talk to us. Baseball has some numbers that mean more than what they are. What I mean is that 56 isn't just the integer after 55, it's Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, and it rings a bell for baseball fans when we hear it. The same goes for 714 and .406 and 2,130 and 1.12 and a few others. Six-sixty isn't one of those numbers.

Rob Neyer of ESPN.com made the admirably contrarian point the other day that Bonds passing Mays is not a big deal. He wondered who cares who's third on any list, and noted Bonds was still behind Mays on the all-time Giants home run list and behind Aaron on the all-time National League list.

All true, but I can't agree that No. 661 wasn't a big deal. I don't care if you're swinging a bat or driving on the Bayshore Freeway: Passing Willie Mays is always a big deal. Mays thought it was, handing over a goofily literal symbolic torch after Bonds' 660th on Monday.

But I was far more excited about Bonds hitting his 500th and 600th homers, even though I realize those had meaning only because we have 10 fingers. If we had eight instead, like cartoon characters, we'd have all gotten charged up about home runs No. 576 and 640, and we'd be looking forward to Bonds' next round-number milestone: No. 704.

Instead we're looking ahead to 714, Babe Ruth's total, and I think that's why 661 didn't do it for me. Mays' total, 660, was never a target. Ruth hit his 714th in 1935, and from that day until Aaron passed him in 1974, that was the number every home run hitter would shoot for, though in pretty much everyone's case except Aaron they might as well have been shooting at Mars.

It became apparent around the beginning of the '70s that Aaron, three years younger than the pushing-40 Mays, who would stay ahead of him in career homers until '72, might have a shot. He hit 44 homers in 1969 to bring him to 554 -- 160 from Ruth -- and he was still only 35. If he could just average 32 homers a year for the next five years, a huge if, he could do it.

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As you know, he did better than that, taking only four years to hit 159 and then tying Ruth with his first home run of 1974. I believe, by the way, that as much as Aaron is admired, this remarkable accomplishment -- at a time when late 30s was considered seriously old for an athlete and in an era when pitching was dominant -- hasn't been properly appreciated.

I think Aaron's pursuit of Ruth made 714 a bigger, more magical number than it ever had been before. Aaron being stuck on 713 for an entire winter probably helped. But 714 remains a more evocative number in baseball than Aaron's own eventual record, 755.

It's funny how something as abstract and inanimate as a number can play with your emotions like that, or at least it can play with mine. Bonds is 53 home runs shy of Ruth. Who cares who's in second place? Maybe nobody. But 714, man. Can't wait.

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