As Barry Bonds closes in on Hank Aaron's career home run record, America is hopelessly conflicted and confused.
Is Bonds a blatant drug cheat, a great player, or a combination?
Should we applaud historic homer No. 756, hiss at it, or just ignore the moment?
Are opinions of Bonds skewed by race?
In a recent ABC/ESPN poll, 52 percent of the 799 adult baseball fans surveyed said they don't want Bonds to break the record, and 37 percent said they are pulling for him. Along the racial divide, only 28 percent of whites support Bonds, and nearly 75 percent of blacks are pro-Barry. Did Bonds knowingly take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs? About 37 percent of black respondents think he did; 76 percent of whites believe he did.
It's no wonder that baseball commissioner Bud Selig has maintained a low profile on Bonds' quest for 756. Selig hasn't said whether he plans to start attending the San Francisco Giants' games once Bonds is within a couple of homers of tying and breaking the record. And Major League Baseball hasn't disclosed plans (if any) for marking, or perhaps celebrating, the occasion.
Selig can't win either way. If he is there to honor Bonds, he'll be accused of putting the official MLB stamp on a bogus record, and that would make him an accessory to fraud. But if Selig avoids Bonds and No. 756, he may be accused of all sorts of things, including racism.
I'm finding it difficult to legitimize the race issue in the Bonds discussion.
A Harris poll taken in March 1974, when Aaron was one home run away from No. 714, showed that 77 percent of sports fans were rooting for Aaron to break Babe Ruth's record. Aaron received plenty of vile, racist mail. But the greater good of American people were on his side.
If people shun Bonds now, it's because of the steroid taint, and because of Bonds' long-standing bristly personality. He's never been a likable guy and usually goes out of his way to keep it that way. And if you don't like Bonds, it doesn't make you a racist. If someone declines to embrace Bonds' record now, it isn't any different from the baseball writers' emphatic rejection of white slugger Mark McGwire on his first time on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Moreover, Aaron broke the record of Ruth, who was white. But Bonds will be breaking the record held by Aaron, who is black. So how, exactly, does one get smeared on racism charges for hoping that the revered Aaron keeps the home run record? Aaron himself has steered clear of the Bonds escapade, saying he has no desire to be around when Bonds hits No. 756. Like many Americans, Aaron is ambivalent.
I have no malice toward Bonds, and I will vote for him for the Hall of Fame, because he'd established Hall of Fame credentials before his body and home run power began expanding. I just don't care much about his record. Why? Because of 1998. I've written this before, and I'll say it again: I loved the McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa Home Run Derby. I suspended the likely reality (steroids) to enjoy the entertainment.
Live and learn. I choose to recognize Bonds for what he is: a product of his times. All players are suspects. We don't know who used steroids, who didn't. Sure, players are tested now, but the loophole in the system (human growth hormone) hasn't been closed. I don't trust Roger Clemens any more than I trust Barry Bonds. That's just the way it is now.
When Bonds hits No. 756, I will try to watch. I want to see the reaction from Bonds, his teammates, the fans and MLB. And I'll change the channel and get on with my life. Many years from now, maybe all these numbers and records will make better sense. Maybe we'll know a lot more than we do now. But I can't hate Bonds. Because if you hate Bonds, then you must also hate Major League Baseball. He is the No. 1 symbol of his era.
Bernie Miklasz writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.