Sitting at home flipping back-and-forth between Leno/Letterman and the Giants-Nats game last night, I watched the scene following Barry Bonds’ 756th home run much differently than I had as a kid when Hank Aaron hit number 715 back in 1974 and even as a much-older adult when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd homer in 1998 which broke the single season mark.
When Aaron hit his homer it was cause for celebration. At nine years old and a baseball fan, I cheered as I watched on TV because the number 714 was special. Maybe it was because Babe Ruth was a Baltimore boy and a mythical sports figure or maybe it was due to the fact it was the biggest single record in sports. At nine, I didn’t realize or think about the social implications of Aaron’s chase of the record. I came to appreciate that later in life when I read about the abusive letters and stress Aaron endured as he passed Ruth on the all-time home run list.
The summer of 1998 was special as a baseball fan because of the race to number 62 between McGwire and Sammy Sosa. It was a feel-good story as both players chased Roger Maris, who had also suffered from the effects of stress, hate mail and weathered scrutiny from the New York press as he hit 61 homers in 1961. Both players embraced the chase as their own and the moment McGwire hit his 62nd, most of the country that cared about baseball and sports were caught up in the moment as well. I remember being in my apartment with my future wife and both of us watched and cheered even though she was not really a big baseball fan — but she understood the historic significance when it occurred.
Fast forward to last night. McGwire and Sosa, along with Bonds have all been painted with the brush of baseball’s steroid scandal in one way or another. McGwire ended his career 17 homers shy of 600 and faded away after he retired in 2001, save for his memorable “I’m not here to talk about the past” statement made at Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball in 2005. Sosa, after a disastrous 2005 season with the Orioles and a year out of the game in 2006, hit his 600th homer to near indifference by most of the country earlier this season — a far cry from the hysteria that every Sosa homer brought to Chicago almost a decade earlier for the Cubs. Bonds, who broke McGwire’s season mark with 73 in 2001, has had his name and accomplishments tied to the ongoing BALCO investigation.
Add to the fact that Bonds is seen by most fans and media as surly and arrogant, certainly not the reluctant admirable hero Aaron was in 1974 or the cheerful media-friendly types that McGwire and Sosa both were in 1998.
For baseball’s sake and with the continued threat of an indictment in BALCO over him, he needed to hit the record-breaker at home in San Francisco, where he is most appreciated — not on the road in unfriendly territory especially with three games scheduled in Atlanta next week — where the thought of Bonds passing local hero Aaron in his home city and in a ballpark next to the former site of number 715 was distasteful to many fans.
What struck me most about Bonds’ 756 homer was not the home run itself, or the instant knowledge as he dropped his bat and raised his hands as the ball headed for the seats, or his embrace of his son and family at home plate, or even the appearance of his godfather Willie Mays with him after the record-breaker — it was the classy Aaron, who has been recognized more for his personal achievement from fans in 2007 than he had been in the immediate years after he hit number 715 in 1974.
Aaron, a private man who like all baseball fans knows of the allegations that surround Bonds, reportedly was urged by longtime friend and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to tape the remarks that were played on the video board after 756 had occurred after he repeatedly stated that he would not be in attendance when Bonds broke his record.
After he congratulated both Bonds and recognized his own 33 years at the top of the career homer chart on the tape, Aaron said, “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
What Aaron and baseball both dream of is that the next person to wear the home run crown will be inspired to do so without hint of scandal and stand in history without an “asterisk” of suspicion regarding performance-enhancing substances. Without that 715 is still a historic achievement and 756 is just a number.