LONGSHOTS: Homers create bonds among fans for generations
by Dave Long
The big excitement this weekend is Barry Bonds coming to Fenway Park for the first time in his great and now tainted career. This is a big deal because, barring injury or an unforeseen indictment of some kind, heíll pass Hank Aaronís record 755 for most home runs all-time in baseball history sometime this season.
Oh yes, and thereís also the little matter that he comes here under the cloud of the steroids issue, which has been the biggest story in baseball for several years. At least, that is, in the minds of some ó especially the media. Though, to steal a phrase from the biggest baseball fan to sit in the Oval Office, I contend there is a great silent majority out there who feel the steroid story is a big ho-hum.
Not that it will be quiet for Bonds by a long shot (Iím wondering if anybody can top the guy carrying the blonde doll on a pole a few weeks ago with the sign that read, ďIím with A-RodĒ). By entering the week at 746 he wonít pass Aaron in Boston, but heís still in the center of the storm. Thatís because the all-time home run record has been the most cherished in sports since the day Babe Ruth took over the lead and never looked back. Nothing else is even close these days.
So itís a big deal and the media is all over it, particularly as it relates to the place in history for players linked to the controversy like Mark Mcgwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds. Yes, using steroids is cheating and cheaters get what they earn ó BUT itís not quite the black-and-white issue for the historical record that many think. Here are a few reasons why itís not black and white and why itís a bigger story than if it were in another sport.
Pitching: How come pitchers have pretty much escaped scrutiny here? If steroids had such a positive impact building strength and shortening injury recovery time do you really think only hitters would use them? I doubt it. Thus if pitchers did and a hitter like A-Rod didnít, doesnít it stand to reason he might hit fewer homers? And if a top pitcher like Roger Clemens were approaching Nolan Ryanís strikeout record while suspected as Bonds is, would it be as big a deal? Maybe, but I donít think so.
Cheating Has Always Gone On: That doesnít make it right, but itís still a fact that guys who did cheat are in the Hall of Fame. For instance Yankee catcher Elston Howard sharpened the snap on his shin guards so he could scuff the ball when Whitey Ford pitched. Holding the ball on the scuff supposedly gave Ford extra movement. Thatís illegal ó right? How come Gaylord Perry never got the flack Bonds has? He never did a thing to dispel the widespread belief he threw a spitter ó which was illegal. Heíll probably deny it today by saying it was a psychological ploy because he wanted hitters thinking it was coming to distract them. And it worked, as he won 326 games and a Cy Young Award in each league in the 1960s and 70s. And when it came time to vote him into the Hall of Fame there wasnít any of the rancor the suspected steroid crew of Bonds, Mark Mcgwire and Sammy Sosa will face. Does that strike you as a double standard?
Owners Love Home Runs: Do you think Ty Cobb and his contemporaries have a beef with their owners? They hit homers in single digits, while the likes of Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Foxx hit them in bushels. You think things changed that much in 10 years? No, they made the ball livelier after seeing how much fans loved watching Ruth go yard. Compare todayís ball to the one used in the Babeís era and then thereís 1987 when Wade Boggs magically hit more than 20 homers (24) for the only time in his career. The fact is owners have always tinkered with the rules and like in the steroid era itís affected where hitters and pitchers fall in the all-time list.
The Hypocrisy of Bud Selig: In baseballís first 90 years 50 home runs were surpassed 14 times by eight different players. Seven are in the Hall of Fame. In the next 16 years it was done 25 times, including the top six best seasons by a group of 14 players that includes, among others, Brady Anderson, Greg Vaughn and Luis Gonzalez. Yes, weight training and equipment are better and stadiums are smaller, but with that kind of dramatic increase, are you telling me no one had an inkling of what was going on? I think they did and looked the other way because of the next category. That makes Budís non-appearance when Bonds breaks the record hypocritical.
America Loves Home Runs: The original Yankee Stadium was built with a short porch in right to capitalize on Ruthís power. Flash forward 60 years to Camden Yards opening under the watchful eye of then Orioles president Larry Lucchino and itís no different. The first retro park played to SRO greats for a decade because, in addition to being way cool, it was small and generated homers. It sparked a renaissance in baseball and led to a flood of new, smaller parks all over the country ó like minute Citizens Bank in Philly where Ryan Howard hit 58 in his second season in the majors. You donít think miniature ballparks like these are going to play havoc with the all-time list?
The Babe: Iím sure someone will make a pretty good case for Muhammad Ali, but I say thereís never been a more beloved or daunting figure in sports history. The reason the Babe is still present today is the imprint his gargantuan home runs and outsized personality made on the masses as he transformed how baseball was played. That became ingrained in the baseball culture and was why Roger Maris got booed in 1961 and partly why Aaron received more than 900,000 letters from fans who didnít want him to break Ruthís all-time record in the winter before he did. Thatís why this story is so big.
This isnít to explain away what anyone did. Itís just to say baseball and its rules have changed through the years. Itís had a big impact on the numbers and people tend gloss over things like the fact that the Babe played in an all-white league, which made it less competitive than today. And if you are someone who believes steroids users should get the chair, cheer up, there is good news on the horizon. Bonds will hold it until 2015 tops. Thatís when Red Sox Nation fave Alex Rodriguez should pass him on his way to 800.
Dave Long is host of Home Team Saturday with Dave Long and Company, 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday morning on WGAM (1250 AM in Manchester and 900 AM in Nashua).