Let's get this straight: I can't stand Barry Bonds.
I thought he was an obnoxious, skinny, talented jerk when he started his big league career playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates; he was an obnoxious not so skinny but very talented jerk when he moved on to the San Francisco Giants and had some very big years in the mid-90s, and more recently he has been an obnoxious, grotesque-looking jerk as he has unbelievably pursued two of baseball's most honored records: the single season home run mark and now the career home run record.
And let's get this straight, too, Barry Bonds will break Henry Aaron's record this season and he'll hold the record for many years to come. The record will be his so get used to it. There will be no asterisk implying that Bonds's records were tainted. His still not completely proven use of performance enhancing substances was not against the rules of Major League Baseball when he did or did not use the stuff. I am repulsed by the idea that steroids took such a hold of my favorite sport but still there should be no erasing of his records by the suits at Major League Baseball, who are now so embarrassed by the chase.
Bud Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, has made it clear that he might be too busy to attend the games when Bonds could break Aaron's mark. Something about re-arranging his sock drawer or shredding old credit card receipts or something like that.
Of course Selig and all his fellow MLB suits cheered wildly and madly while the bloated figures of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the single season record of Roger Maris in 1998, the year those two guys "saved" baseball. And they cheered wildly and madly when such "big stars" as Brady Anderson and Greg Vaughn and Luis Gonzalez hit 50 or more homers in a season, far surpassing any total they had previously reached. (When you look at those guys' career records, their one big year can only make you laugh.) The Golden Age Selig called it.
But lost in the hoopla of '98 was an envious superstar in San Francisco. Bonds saw it all, saw the adulation that McGwire and Sosa got in their homer chase and got jealous. So he went to the body changer. The very good player became the most effective home run hitter in baseball history. All this as he passed age 35. By the time he was 37, in 2001, his body and his swing produced the greatest home run season ever. But in addition to the homers he had an apparent growth spurt in his head. A longish noggin turned into a pumpkin shape. No one really doubted the source of his power. But, again, it was not against the rules.
Nothing really became against the rules in baseball when it came to steroids and other performance enhancing substances until March 17, 2005. That was when McGwire and Sosa and Rafael Palmiero and admitted juicer Jose Canseco stunk up a Capitol Hill hearing room with their "testimony" before a House Committee looking into steroids in baseball. After that the rules started to change drastically. The Players Association came to agree with the team owners that something needed to be done. (Perhaps, the specter of some further, more real, scrutiny from Congress had something to do with this.) The monster they had all created and nurtured and celebrated had to be somehow eliminated. Canseco? He was done already. McGwire, too. Sosa made an enfeebled return to play for the Orioles that season where he shared a clubhouse with the adamantly anti-steroid Palmiero. While Sosa turned into a weak-fielding weak-hitting disgrace, Palmiero managed to test positive for steroids after he swore to Congress that he never used the stuff. And then he blamed a supplement he got from a teammate. You gotta love that guy.
But it's Bonds we're here to talk about. Bonds didn't disappear. He stayed on, seemed to grow even bigger as he drew a huge salary and huge crowds to the Giants beautiful ballpark by the Bay. And he kept hitting homers. Oh, not as many as before but enough to make you wonder if he really could break Aaron's record.
And now here he is, 21 homers away from tying the mark, 22 from breaking it and Bud Selig, who as Commissioner of MLB oversaw all these goings-on and encouraged it and said that we were living in baseball's Golden Age while it was happening, now seems ready to hide from it all. After the Congressional fiasco he appointed former Senator George Mitchell to "investigate" baseball's steroid problem. Ha Ha Ha. Mitchell's a board member of the Red Sox, he's Chairman of the Board of Disney, which owns ESPN. He's the owners' guy. Do you really think he's ever going to find anything worth talking about? Will he ever be in a position to recommend changes? To recommend tossing a player from the game? Not likely.
So Barry's going to break the record and all Bud can do is sulk. Asked recently at a San Francisco area luncheon whether he would trail Bonds as he neared the record, Selig made his position pretty clear.
"I wasn't there when Roger Clemens won his 300th game. That's a matter I'll determine at some point in the future," Selig said. "Let me say it, and I'm not going to say anymore. That's it."
Roll back the calendar to April of 1974 when Aaron was putting the finishing touches on his pursuit of Babe Ruth. Selig then was a much younger owner of a big league team, the Milwaukee Brewers, and a good friend (as he is now) of Aaron's. I'm sure he was unhappy at the time with then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. That baseball survived Bowie Kuhn's sanctimonious stewardship proves what a great game it is.
As the 1973 season had wound down, Aaron stepped up his chase and remarkably ended that year one homer short of tying the Babe. Kuhn made it pretty clear that winter that he would not trail Aaron and the Atlanta Braves waiting for the big homer to be hit. He did, however, manage a smart move when he said the Braves could not hold Aaron out of a season opening series in Cincinnati to better insure his breaking the record in front of the home-town fans. (Just why Atlanta was opening that season on the road is another question that was never asked.) So Aaron played and on Opening Day he tied the record in the presence of Kuhn and Vice President Gerald Ford with a three-run homer in his first time at bat. No more homers followed that day. Aaron, 40 years old, sat out the next game and then played the final game of the Reds series and went 0 for 3.
The Braves went home for their home opener the next night, Monday April 8. There were almost 54,000 people in attendance and one of them was not Bowie Kuhn. When Aaron walloped an Al Downing pitch over the left field fence in the 4th inning, Bowie was in Cleveland, ostensibly wrapping up a meeting with the Wahoo booster club. And Bowie never saw anything wrong with this.
Now Selig, by his statements and his expected inaction, seems to have relegated Henry Aaron's home run record to the status of Gaylord Perry winning his 300th game, or Steve Carlton; or Don Sutton; or even Roger Clemens. By saying what he did, he has already diminished his friend Henry Aaron's accomplishment.
When I worked at the NHL, the 1993-94 season was marked by Wayne Gretzky's pursuit of Gordie Howe's career goal-scoring mark, kind of a Henry chasing Babe on ice. As the Great One approached career goal 800 (and Gordie's total of 801) Commissioner Gary Bettman hit the road. As his PR guy, I certainly wasn't going to let him pull a Bowie and to his credit he never thought about not being there either. And we were there that wonderful night in Los Angeles when Gretzky got the goal. Not being there was, frankly, unthinkable.
One more thing: last spring Seton Hall University and ESPN did a poll on people's attitudes towards Bonds and the use of steroids in baseball. One result in particular struck me: 35 percent of African-American respondents thought race was the most important reason for Bonds being the center of attention on the steroid question, while only 2 percent of non African-Americans felt that race was the reason for Bonds being "singled out." For a sport that has done its best to alienate fans of all races and for a sport that has seen its African-American fan base diminishing and its African-American player base shrinking as well, Bud Selig needs to find some way to hide his discomfort and displeasure and be there when Barry Bonds breaks this record. He did it all in the Golden Age of your game Bud, now deal with it.