In a March column titled “Time for Selig to Bury Bonds,” New York Daily News sports pasha Mike Lupica wrote, “They will cheer [Bonds] in San Francisco when he passes Babe Ruth, and we will hear again that his most vituperative critics hate him, the arrogant black star, for passing the portly white guy who has been one of the famous names in American sports since the ’20s. As if Bonds is breaking some kind of record by passing Ruth. As if we care about that anymore.”
But as Bonds, now with 713 home runs, staggers on buckling knees toward Ruth’s epic 714 total, Lupica has been proved painfully wrong. Even though the actual home run record is Hank Aaron’s 755, the baseball world is on edge as Bonds approaches the Great Bambino.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, whose gray, shadowed countenance looks like a map of Mordor, announced that there would be no ceremony when Bonds passes Ruth. “Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record,” Selig said. “We don’t celebrate anybody the second or third time in.”
But as Selig well knows, the church of baseball puts its faith in a catechism of sacred numerology. The most historically important arguably is 714. As Josh DuBow of the Associated Press writes, “More than three decades have passed since 714 represented baseball’s career home run record. Yet there is still something magical about Babe Ruth’s old record. ‘The average person probably knows 714 more than 755…but 755 is the record,’ Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.” It doesn’t take Kreskin to divine the message Selig is sending by ignoring Bonds’s run on history. In a Chicago Tribune piece called “This Snub’s for You,” Phil Rogers seethes, “Babe Ruth, celebrated as the grandest character in baseball lore, is being chased by an anti-hero whose act has grown tired and, at times, pretty much pathetic.”
Even though Bonds has never been convicted of any crime, has never tested positive for a banned substance and has played the game at a higher level than any player of his chemically enhanced generation, he is the game’s pariah, the media-appointed “symbol of the steroid era.” Now that the owners have mined their billions from the 1990s home run binge, and everyone has a Congressional hangover, Bonds is persona non grata.
The thought of Bonds passing Ruth clearly makes Selig’s pallor turn an even murkier shade of gray. Babe Ruth, Lupica’s assurances aside, remains the most treasured and important figure in baseball history. Home runs are still called “Ruthian.” Yankee Stadium is still the House That Ruth Built. Ruth is the man with the fifty-four-ounce bat, someone so portly the famed Yankee pinstripes were first stitched on just to make him appear less rotund.