In his first four minutes as baseball’s all-time home run king, Barry Bonds gallivanted through a throng of teammates and loved ones at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, a series of tributes and well-wishes that came off like the stuff you’d practice in front of a mirror in anticipation of a big moment.
A point to the sky. A kiss for his family members. Hugs for his teammates. A tribute to his godfather, Willie Mays, complete with a gesture that suggested to fans worldwide, “No, no, this guy, he’s the man!”
Finally, something stopped Bonds in his tracks.
For those who weren’t around or can’t remember Aug. 7, 2007, it was a grim, yet titillating time. Bonds was about to topple Aaron as the king of the longball, just three months, as it turns out, before Bonds would be indicted on four counts of lying to a federal grand jury in his testimony regarding performance-enhancing drug use.
An American icon would be unseated in favor of a famously surly, occasionally self-aggrandizing and now (very likely) known drug cheat. The widespread belief: Bonds’ access to designer PEDs significantly enhanced his ability to hit home runs. In particular: The startling 258 home runs he hit between 2000 and 2004, despite a pitcher-friendly home park and the fact Bonds was between the ages of 35 and 39 when his peak power years arrived.
And so by the time Major League Baseball added even a few teeth to its drug policy in 2005, Bonds was already past his godfather Mays (660 home runs), moving in on the hallowed Babe Ruth (714) and the universally revered Aaron, whose 755 homers were never threatened since his 1976 retirement.
The steroid era, though, was like nothing else.
Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron together at the 2004 Home Run Derby. (Photo: ERIC GAY, AP)
Bonds was relatively late to that game, engaging BALCO only after one-dimensional players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa pushed a legitimate all-time great to the game’s margins. The younger set embraced the video-game numbers a bulked-up Bonds produced; to most anyone older than 30 residing outside of San Francisco, it was an assault on the senses.
And so as Bonds passed Ruth and closed in on Aaron, the duality of a death march and a truly historic accomplishment was jarring.
Fans booed and waved signs adorned with asterisks. Yet, as Bonds famously put it in 2005, they were "still going to come see the show.”
Commissioner Bud Selig dutifully tagged along for the record, but through folded arms and clenched teeth; in case you somehow missed it, he and Aaron were tight.
The hypocrisy of it all was laid bare when Bonds hit record-tying home run No. 755 off itinerant Padres right-hander Clay Hensley, who had actually tested positive for steroids, a stain that never appeared on Bonds’ record.
All those forces converged that August night when Bonds hit No. 756 into a delirious scrum of Giants fans, slapped hands and kissed his babies, was handed a mic and then asked to direct his attention to the video board.
And for just a few fleeting seconds, all that ugliness dissipated as Aaron appeared.
“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds,” Aaron said in a pre-recorded message, “on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment, which requires skill, longevity and determination. Throughout the past century the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold that record for 33 of those years.
“I’ll move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. 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.”
Aaron’s words were loudly saluted in San Francisco, and the expression on Bonds’ face, even if only for a moment, spoke volumes. The unqualified validation clearly meant the world to Bonds; perhaps someday we’ll get to hear a deeper explanation of what he meant when, later that night, Bonds vehemently insisted, “This record is not tainted at all. At all. Period.”
The ensuing 14 years have left us to grapple with the nebulous and impossible concept of wondering who, really, is the all-time home run leader. Old heads will passionately insist it is Aaron; a Braves podcast, in fact, dubbed itself “755 Is Real,” leaving unsaid that 762, Bonds’ final home run count, is somehow artificial.
Those sentiments will only reheat in the wake of Aaron’s death Friday at the age of 86. They resonate further when we examine the totality of Aaron’s life – playing through death threats as he approached Ruth’s record, what he meant to Black athletes and baseball at large – juxtaposed against the wounds to Bonds’ legacy that were largely self-inflicted.
In one year, Bonds will make his final appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, after which his candidacy will only periodically be revisited by a panel even older than the writers who now judge him.
Bonds returned the love Friday after Aaron’s death, releasing a statement via social media that did not speak of home runs but rather thanked Aaron for “being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ball players who came after you.”
Rest In Peace #HankAaron. A true baseball legend. pic.twitter.com/bDeuzfh8hx
Perhaps that’s where we leave this so-called debate. Bonds is the all-time home run leader: He hit those 762 balls over the fence, a majority of them unenhanced by chemists, all of them a testament to his skill, strength and determination.
Hank Aaron? Well, he’s Hank Aaron – a distinction far greater than any notation in a record book.
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