The Baltimore Sun

When his record-setting clout against the Washington Nationals landed around midnight Eastern time Tuesday, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds officially became baseball's reigning home run king.

But hours, days, maybe years after Bonds' 756th home run reached the AT&T; Park seats, questions about the validity of Bonds' accomplishments - and really, of any of those who played in the recent, so-called steroids era - will continue to linger.

"I don't know how we are going to look at it or what's going to come out of this decade. It will depend on what comes out later," said former Orioles great and Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson. "It's too bad, but everybody is under suspicion in this decade. People are calling it the steroids decade. So I think it will all come out and everything will be determined sometime down the road."

Once the sport's best all-around player, the enigmatic Bonds, 43, is well beyond his prime. But the drama of his quest to eclipse the 33-year-old record held by Henry Aaron polarized a country that isn't sure whether to celebrate a new hallowed sports number or mourn the passing of the torch from a respected baseball legend to one mired in controversy.

While Robinson, now a Major League Baseball special assistant, was in San Francisco Tuesday representing baseball commissioner Bud Selig, Selig reportedly was meeting with former Sen. George Mitchell, who is in the final stages of an investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

It's an interesting juxtaposition that demonstrates, fairly or not, that Bonds always will be linked to both the home run record and to steroids.

"There's no denying Bonds' greatness as a player," said broadcaster Bob Costas, who recently traded verbal barbs with the Giants slugger. "There is certainly a reasonable basis to doubt the authenticity of his late-career achievements."

From baseball clubhouses to sports bars, from radio talk shows to Internet chat rooms, the opinions are plentiful and varied on Bonds, the player, person and suspected steroids user.

"It's an amazing accomplishment. It's cool to see something like that in your generation," Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts said of Bonds' record. "It's certainly something that puts you in awe. You can't even comprehend it, really."

The feat drew notice - and praise - across the sporting world.

Ravens cornerback Derrick Martin said he tried to stay up to watch Tuesday's game, but fell asleep an inning before the record-breaker.

"I think it is good. Records are set to be broken," Martin said. "I'm just happy to see somebody break it."

Former Pittsburgh Steeler Edmund Nelson, who became a friend of Bonds' when the slugger played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, said he was "absolutely thrilled for him."

"For his career to be tainted by an asterisk by some because of a political question in my view is absolutely ludicrous," said Nelson, who was at the Steelers' training camp in Latrobe, Pa. "You're convicting him before he even goes to trial, I think."

Some fans agree, and repeat Bonds' mantra that he never failed a steroids test. Yet MLB's program is still in its infancy and results have been released only for the last three seasons.

"I was excited. That's my man right there," said Greg Jones of Philadelphia, who was at the ESPN Zone on Pratt Street yesterday. "I don't think he did [steroids]. They didn't prove anything with him."

Others, however, look at Bonds' dramatic change in physical appearance from his rookie year in 1986 to now, pair it with the damning evidence of performance-enhancing drug use detailed in books such as Game of Shadows, and declare that Bonds used illegal means to compile his eye-popping numbers.

"The evidence he used human growth hormone is overwhelming," said Jeff Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated baseball writer and author of the Bonds' unauthorized biography Love Me, Hate Me. "I don't understand why people get mad in their own lives when they see people that cheat, but at this level guys do it and suddenly it doesn't matter and they pooh-pooh it."

One man whose opinion may carry more weight than any other is Aaron, the Hall of Famer who hit No. 715 in 1974 to break the record first set by Babe Ruth in 1921. Now 73 and an executive with the Atlanta Braves, Aaron kept a low profile during Bonds' chase and vowed not to be in attendance when it was broken. However, Tuesday night, Aaron congratulated Bonds in a recorded video message that was played moments after the historic homer. Bonds was overwhelmed by the gesture.

Elsewhere, the reaction was mixed. "When I saw Hank Aaron pop up on that board I was devastated," Pearlman said. "It gave some validity to a completely bogus record."

"What Hank did was beautiful," said Dusty Baker, a former teammate of Aaron's and former manager of Bonds'. "I wish people would look at that and it would be resolved."

What increased its impact, Baker said, is that he knows Aaron's comments were genuine.

"I'm hearing all this speculation about what Hank meant or that somebody pressured him do that. Trust me, nobody pressures Hank," Baker said. "He was the ultimate pressure guy. And nobody ever made Hank Aaron say anything he didn't want to say. That was Hank. You don't read between the lines with Hank."

Still, Aaron's legacy of a good-guy class act seemingly lords over the surly Bonds, even for generations that never saw Aaron play.

"I liked Hank Aaron because he was a good, strong baseball player who didn't cheat," said Mitch Bodner, 8, of Woodbine, who was at Dave and Buster's Grand Sports Caf? at Arundel Mills yesterday.

Besides the steroid allegations, Bonds' popularity also has taken a hit due to his reputation as self-centered and fan unfriendly, according to Steve Danish, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

That's why, even as Bonds approached Aaron's mark, people were talking about Bonds eventually being surpassed by New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 32, who recently became the quickest player to 500 career homers.

"I think it's a combination of [steroid allegations and Bonds' persona] and maybe more about, 'Let's find someone who's more likable who could break this record,'" Danish said.

Even if Rodriguez is the eventual career home run leader, there are some, such as Paul Egbert, the Babe Ruth Museum weekend gift shop manager, who believe Ruth should always be the king because he reached 714 in far fewer at-bats.

"My personal opinion, not the museum's, is that Ruth still reigns," he said.

So, the court of public opinion will never come to a unanimous verdict. But there's a strong contingent that, indeed, believes Bonds' accomplishments will never hold the same status as the others. Because of the allegations, and because he's Bonds.

"The record that he now holds, at the very least, it's the top number," Costas said. "But that number doesn't have the aura or the mystique or romance to it that 714 had or that 755 had."

Sun reporters Sandra McKee, Ken Murray, Jeff Zrebiec, Peter Schmuck, Edward Lee, Don Markus and Dan Igo contributed to this article.

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