Hollow, not hallowed

Dan Wetzel

Long gone and a long time coming, the Barry Bonds-propelled baseball soared into the California sky and right through history; a history no one will ever be able to fully explain to future generations of skeptical fans.

Bonds has hit 756 home runs, the most ever, but it isn't just the number that comes with a performance-enhancing-inspired asterisk. It's Bonds himself, it's baseball as a whole, it's an era of sports where rule-breaking is rampant and honest heroes such as Henry Aaron are in the shortest of supplies.

Around the country, Bonds' home run will be met with cheers and curses but mostly with shrugged shoulders and pointed fingers. There are a multitude of guilty targets.

If this was supposedly the making of history, then realize history isn't going to make much of this. Ten, 30, 50 years from now, it will be looked upon with bewilderment – did people really celebrate a phony number that punctuated a fraudulent era of the game? No one will give much credence to what happened in Major League Baseball from, say, 1996 to the advent of mandatory steroids testing.

Technically, Bonds swung, connected and sent a ball out of the park 756 different times in his 22-season career. But it takes Easter Bunny-level gullibility to believe he did it naturally.

His numbers are nonsensical – most notably the absurd 73 homers in 2001, a total 19.7 percent greater than Roger Maris' mark of 61, which hasn't been touched without massive suspicion in 46 years and counting.

Forty-six year old records don't just fall by 19.7 percent. Or even by the 14.7 percent Mark McGwire exceeded Maris' record in 1998. If someone were to shave 19.7 percent off the current world record in the mile run (3:43.13), he'd finish at 2:59.2. Yes, a three-minute mile. You think you'd believe something so statistically improbable? How about 100-meter dash in 7.8 seconds? You think your grandkids would buy that one, or mock it as some old fish story?

Guess what, they aren't going to believe 73, either. And without those, Bonds didn't pass Aaron.

Bonds' ties to disgraced BALCO labs, the fact that his personal trainer is behind bars for refusal to turn over evidence on him, and the possible federal indictment on perjury charges this fall means that 756 deceives only the most dim or devout.

The saddest part is that Bonds never needed it, that in surpassing the most hallowed record in baseball he tarnished his reputation to the point his apologists have to remind people that he was Hall-of-Fame-worthy long before baseball's "Steroid Era" began.

Bonds should be hitting his, say, 650th clean homer about now, continuing to build the case that he is the greatest ballplayer of all time. That is how great he was, and is. He never needed the juice. His legacy would have been so much greater, meant so much more without it.

But that wasn't enough. In the exhaustive Bonds biography "Love Me, Hate Me," it is surmised that he was jealous over the attention lapped on McGwire, a lesser talent who looked comically juiced as he clubbed the 70 questionable home runs in 1998.

And, that is where this is about so much more than Bonds. That is why the melancholy of this record falling sweeps over a cast of the craven.

This is baseball's shame too, from commissioner Bud Selig on down. Inside the game, they knew the numbers of the late 1990s were as artificial as the players' biceps. No one dared to care. This was about making money after the disastrous canceling of the 1994 World Series.

The world Bonds and the others operated in came with tacit approval from above. Bonds may be a lout – a man born into privilege who would throw his jock on the floor, not in a nearby hamper, so he could watch a low-paid clubhouse worker pick it up – but he didn't start the drug era. He did it naturally and fumed while a bunch of clowns surpassed him.

So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right? It isn't excusable, of course. But at the time, it was all so clouded. No testing. No concern. No comment. Just Selig, team owners and the players perpetuating a dishonest game on the fans.

"I'm sick of Bud Selig and Major League Baseball, the way they've been grandstanding," Detroit Tigers outfielder Gary Sheffield ranted to USA Today. "Why doesn't Bud Selig tell the truth? Why does he keep lying and saying he doesn't know nothing about nothing? He knew everything (about steroids) we (the players) knew.

"Bud Selig wants to talk about the integrity of the game? To him, the integrity of the game is how much money they make."

Selig maintains he knew nothing definitive, and that his efforts to take action earlier were met by the stiff resistance from the players' union. In the court of public opinion, though, Selig is seen as no more believable than Bonds.

That soaring shot, No. 756, is just one more reminder of an era that will be impossible to defend to future fans. These numbers aren't real, they aren't true. The accomplishments will be written off and ridiculed like stats from the turn of the 20th century.

In 1904, considered part of the "modern era," Jack Chesbro won 41 games and recorded a 1.82 ERA, pitching all season on two days rest. Does anyone consider that the greatest season of all time by a starting pitcher? Or do you scoff at the competition considering that today's far better conditioned pitchers – some on juice themselves – only start about 34 games a year?

Perhaps Chesbro really was great. But how could you know? His numbers are so out of line they actually weaken, not bolster, his reputation. That's what Bonds will deal with decades from now.

His home run total isn't the asterisk, he is. He didn't need the juice. But neither did Bud Selig's baseball. The whole game gets an asterisk because together they chased the easy money, the momentary glory.

But time has a leveling effect, and with the home run chase over we can finally get on with tomorrow.

History promises to be scornful, not just of Bonds, but of Selig and his cronies, and of the players' union, who led this great game, America's pastime, down a dark road, leaving behind numbers that future generations will never accept.