Feared Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz says there is one immutable law under his roof: “When I am home and Bonds comes up it’s the house rule that no one is allowed to talk.” This is the part of Barry Bonds’s legacy that we won’t be hearing about now that the San Francisco Giants outfielder has passed Henry Aaron to claim the most sacred statistical title in all sports: Major League Baseball’s home run king.
In twenty-five years of watching baseball, Bonds is simply the greatest player I have ever seen. In the 1990s, he averaged thirty-six homers and thirty-four steals every season. At 37, in 2001, he hit a record seventy-three home runs; at 38 he batted .370 with an ungodly .582 on-base percentage; at 39 he won his sixth MVP, hitting forty-five home runs in only 390 at bats. At 40 he set a record by being the first person to have an on-base percentage over .600. He mastered the game like no modern player in any other sport save Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.
But Bonds will leave baseball a polarized place. Games away from the friendly confines of San Francisco have become festivals of vitriol. Much of the media talk about him as if he were Barry bin Laden or, as Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer called him, “OJ [Simpson] Lite.”
All of this has created an open-season atmosphere at the ballpark. Seeing the nightly sports highlights of mostly white fans letting it all hang out against one of the most prominent African-American athletes in the sport has deepened the polarization. In the latest New York Times poll, African-American fans were almost twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron’s record of 755 homers; 57 percent of blacks were rooting for Bonds to break the record, versus only 29 percent of whites.
Making the journey more difficult is the man Bonds was seeking to pass: Henry Aaron. Bonds is painted as symbolic for “what’s wrong in sports,” while Aaron has become one of baseball’s elder statesmen and living legends. Aaron made a surprise appearance on the Jumbotron Tuesday night after Bonds hit his historic blast. This surely must have confused members of the media who have used Aaron’s refusal to be at the game to beat Bonds over the head.
As Jemele Hill from ESPN wrote, “Hank Aaron deserves better than to see his record broken by an unlikable, arrogant cheater who has done nothing but heighten stereotypes of Black athletes. He is unquestionably a Hall of Famer and the best player of this generation–but he is not nearly the man Aaron is, and should not surpass him in any way.”