June 1, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 42

Ruth, race and ’roids: Why we can’t handle Bonds’ 715

Howard Bryant

Six weeks ago, a man approached me on a subway platform in Washington, D.C., ostensibly to tell me how much he enjoyed my book “Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball.”

But what he really wanted to discuss — and spent the next few Metro stops doing so — was Barry Bonds. More specifically, he believed that the lack of fervor over Bonds’ pursuit of baseball’s home run records was directly connected to him being a black man chasing Babe Ruth’s magical number of 714 home runs.

On Sunday, Bonds hit home run number 715, a number once associated with Henry Aaron, who before Bonds was the only other man in baseball history to hit more home runs than the legendary 714 totaled by the legendary Babe Ruth. The miracle of video has made Aaron’s 715th to this day the singularly most memorable moment in baseball history. Lanky, left-handed Al Downing rocked and dealt a fastball that Aaron turned around into history.

Unless you happen to live in the 415 area code, the new 715, Barry’s 715, means nothing. There was no sizzle, like back in 1998, when everyone from barber shop to butcher shop wanted to know if Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa hit one that day. There was certainly no softening toward Bonds, which is usually the custom in these sporting dramas, where the moment would soothe the anger, and everyone could celebrate the power of his talent.

There was celebration in San Francisco and among Bonds’ true believers, but the general feeling is sour. If anything, Bonds taking former Red Sox hand Byung Hyun Kim over the fence for all time may have been the most bittersweet changing of the guard baseball has ever seen. The people who do care about Bonds outside of San Francisco care in the way that they look onto a blighted community and remember wistfully how it used to be.

To those baseball fans who regard every home run he hits as another illegitimate marker of an illegitimate age, Bonds represents a terrible plague marching mercilessly toward your town, destined to destroy your way of life and the good memories that came with it. His march is joyless and irreversible. The Four Elders of the home run — Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson — have already seen their old order destroyed. Bonds passed Robinson’s 586 on June 5, 2002. He beat Willie’s 660 on April 13, 2004, and now beat Ruth on May 28, 2006. Only Aaron waits for his turn.

The people who feel most passionately about Bonds just wish the impossible: they wish everything could go back to the way it was. They want to go back to a world without Bonds, steroids and dirty records.

Getting off the subway at Union Station that day, I had what could only be described as an O.J. Moment. Many black people felt one way about Bonds, many whites another. Those black people believe that Bonds is the target of two investigations — one by the government into possible perjury when he said under oath that he did not use anabolic steroids, the second conducted by his own sport — because he was black. McGwire, who embarrassed himself and his sport during the March 17, 2005 hearings for refusing to discuss steroids under oath, was never subject to this Bonds-like persecution during his playing days.

The whites say Bonds is an open-and-shut case. He said he didn’t use steroids. It has largely been proven that he did. Plus, people don’t like him, and the steroid era in baseball has been generally discredited.

That’s why no one cares.

And that’s where the O.J. Moment comes in.

The O.J. case was presumably about a double murder and justice. What it turned into was a referendum about race in this country, and the impossibility of discussing it. The Barry Bonds saga is ostensibly about home runs, drugs and cheating. Now a fair amount of black people believe it’s not about steroids. It’s about the taking down of yet another black man.

Race is certainly a factor, for if the outrage over Bonds passing Ruth and approaching Aaron is about the legitimacy of his home runs, so too should the home runs of McGwire and Sosa be scrutinized. Bonds cannot simply be sacrificed by these twin investigations for baseball to say justice has been served. This is the type of attitude that scares and angers black people. For example, Rafael Palmeiro failed a baseball-sanctioned drug test in 2005 and was suspended by the league for ten days.

So baseball has proof on Palmeiro in the form of a failed drug test and yet no one in baseball ever investigated him. Why, black people rightly ask, is Bonds the exception?

Race only entered the discussion where Ruth was involved, and that is where the African American community has a right to be upset. Yet this has little to do with Bonds and everything to do with Aaron, for Babe Ruth is not the all-time record holder. Aaron is.

Yet by the commentary in the mainstream press over the past month, you’d think Ruth still held the record Aaron took from him April 8, 1974. It was as if in the minds of many people in this country that Aaron’s record still rightfully belonged to Ruth. Part of this is also understandable: Babe Ruth is the only figure in baseball history bigger than the game. Aaron isn’t. Neither was Ted Williams. Ruth, dead since ’48, toppled by two black men, Aaron and Bonds, is still the standard.

Like O.J., the depressing part about the Bonds story isn’t about race, but about character, and that’s where anyone who defends Bonds has something to answer for. Barry Bonds, like a great many other disgraced public figures black and white, looked into the eyes of America and lied. He compromised his own career and those of the players he passed when his own insurmountable talent and position was never in doubt. But because of our historical grievances — the inability to be properly celebrated, to receive justice, to be allowed to live without being defined by race — the natural reflex is to defend Bonds, the same way it was to defend a double murderer (never convicted, of course) when the truth is that he did not deserve our trust.

It should be noted that the home-run record belongs to a black man, Aaron. It belongs to a man of character who deserves respect and defense. It should also be noted that three of the men Bonds passed and must pass to hold the all-time record — Aaron, Mays and Frank Robinson — are all African American, and yet few black people expressed outrage when Bonds, the alleged steroid user, the alleged cheat, passed them or approached them, or changed their historical standing in the game. It is incongruous to defend Bonds in his pursuit of Ruth, and have no problem when he surpasses a fellow black player, icons such as Frank, Willie or Hank. Who is going to speak for them?

Howard Bryant is the author of two books, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Boston and Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. He is a reporter for the Washington Post and can be contacted at hbryant42@yahoo.com.



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