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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Bonds May Lack Tact, Not a Sense of History

August 17, 2003|Laura Vecsey | Baltimore Sun

The box score from Shea Stadium read that Barry Lamar Bonds ripped two homers Tuesday. Bonds will wish Art Howe and the New York Mets could be found in October, when Bonds seems eerily destined to play in another World Series.

A World Series ring will only be more math to work into the equation of his legacy. In the meantime, Bonds has already taken center stage this summer. With 650 homers, Bonds now sits a perfect 10 behind his godfather, Willie Mays, on the all-time home run list.

Bonds' climb to baseball's rarest height is now in full throttle. Space Shuttle Barry will not stop, at least until he passes Babe Ruth's mark of 714 home runs. That much we know since Bonds' made his famous All-Star assertion about "wiping out" Ruth's record.

Bonds makes no bones about claiming his part in history. But as he takes aim at it, Bonds begs us to answer this question: How and when are we going to reconcile ourselves to whom is Barry Bonds, what he's doing and where will he eventually land in the pantheon of baseball immortals? The field is narrowing, like a vice grip. It's him or Ruth. Or both, in different ways. But it's that tight.

Contrary to the obvious opinion ("Who cares, he's a jerk") this exercise to define Bonds is a more compelling dare than first appears. Behind Bonds' infamous lack of tact, there rests a slightly more complicated figure who, with rough edges, has already set the framework for putting him in historical context.

It's about being a lefty. It's about being fast (he's the only 500 homers/500 steals guy). It's about slugging, homers, on-base percentage. It's about what was and what is. It's about race -- but not because Bonds is black and Ruth was white, but because baseball history is divided.

To review the topic that got him flogged but good, Bonds said, when asked if he was eyeing Hank Aaron's career record of 755 homers: "The only number that I care about is Babe Ruth's. Because as a left-handed hitter, I wiped him out. That's it. And in the baseball world, Babe Ruth's everything, right? I got his slugging percentage [record], and I'll take his home runs [record] and that's it. Don't talk about him no more."

Taken alone and not within context of Bonds' larger discussion of baseball history, these words sounded so caustic. A river of vitriolic backlash ensued. Some of the most pointed criticism came from Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore.

Wednesday, Gibbons said he did not view Bonds' comments as racially motivated, as some had charged Bonds with playing the race card.

Gibbons said Bonds' comments were disturbing because "baseball more than any other sport depends on a positive link to the past. It needs to be protected.

"I just thought they were inappropriate for a person and an athlete of his stature. Barry Bonds has risen to the level of being an appropriate ambassador of baseball, just like Tiger Woods in golf. The difference between Tiger and Barry is Tiger does not run around saying he's going to wipe out Jack Nicklaus," Gibbons said.

As the keeper of Ruth's legacy, it's Gibbons' job to uphold Ruth's honor and stature as the greatest player ever in baseball -- a title befitting Ruth for his completeness as a pitcher and slugger.

In fact, Bonds mentioned Ruth's pitching, and began his discussion of Ruth on a more reverential note.

"Babe Ruth is symbolic of baseball," Bonds said. "If there is a record you want to go after, it's Babe Ruth. Because Babe Ruth is Mr. Baseball, right? He's considered the greatest baseball player, and if you want to compare yourself, you want to compare yourself to the greatest player."

It did not help but stir further suspicion when, asked about passing Aaron's all-time homer mark of 755, Bonds said he might try to pass it "if I get up the courage." Was Bonds being reverential toward Aaron and dismissive of Ruth? Was this, as critics charged, the race card in play?

Having watched Bonds' All-Star interviews/discussions unfold, I didn't view what Bonds said as taunts or cheap shots. Because Bonds has refused to freely engage with reporters and public, his comments about Ruth, Aaron, records and history actually seemed more a breakthrough than a brain cramp. It appeared Bonds was helping shed light on how he is trying to define his assault on history.

For instance, Bonds was adamant that Negro leagues and Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson's 84 home runs in 1936 make Gibson the single-season record holder. The fact of racial segregation before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby is not something Bonds imagined. It was real. It sets askew everything about baseball's hallowed records before 1947. There is no way to discuss baseball history without qualifying records respective of segregation. If this is playing the race card, it's a card that must be dealt -- and dealt with by everyone who cares about the game or legacies.

In June, Bonds was given a tour of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. Mo. It was an experience that prompted Bonds to say he wants some of his mementos enshrined there alongside former greats such as Gibson, Rube Foster, Satchel Paige and Buck O'Neil.

If Bonds is now more acutely aware of the death threats Aaron received as he broke Ruth's record, if he understands Aaron did not get his due, if he recalls his godfather Willie Mays is a former Negro leagues player, if Bonds is attempting to reconcile baseball's split history in terms of his own records and accomplishments, isn't this a valid platform on which he's defining his legacy?

This brazen assault on the record books is upon us. Bonds isn't afraid of seizing his place, nor about defining it according to his interpretation of history. How he says it may lack grace, just like that wicked swing. Doesn't mean it isn't on target.

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