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5:15, Channel 11, at AT&T Park in San Francisco

Juiced Deserts?

As Bonds closes in on baseball's most cherished record, suspicions muddy the waters and mute the celebration. And even if the untainted Rodriguez ultimately surpasses him, the game may never totally escape the cloud of its steroid era, players say.

July 10, 2007|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In a few days, or a few weeks, a home run record will fall.

"I don't want you to jinx me," Alex Rodriguez said.

Not that home run record, the all-time one, the one Barry Bonds will claim with five more homers.

With six more home runs, Rodriguez will become the youngest player in major league history to hit 500. So, just as Bonds is a few days or weeks from breaking Hank Aaron's record of 755, Rodriguez could be a few years from breaking the record Bonds is about to set.

"Now you're going to double-jinx me," Rodriguez said.

In the office of the commissioner, where Bud Selig resolutely refuses to say whether he will attend the game where the most cherished record in his sport might be broken, Rodriguez cannot set that record fast enough.

Fair or not, Bonds is the face of baseball's steroid era. Rodriguez is one of the sport's glamour boys, never accused of chemical enhancements. The sport would be better off, so the thinking goes, if its most treasured record belonged to one of its good guys.

Selig might even commit to showing up for the party.

But, say some prominent players, not so fast.

"I'm pretty sure everyone would love a controversy-free celebration," said Michael Young, the Texas Rangers' shortstop and a four-time All-Star. "I'm just not sure that will ever happen."

Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves' third baseman and a five-time All-Star, said the stigma of the steroid era will not disappear if Rodriguez replaces Bonds atop the all-time home run list.

"There will be questions regarding steroids no matter who approaches the record," Jones said.

Not only steroids, but human growth hormone and designer drugs yet to be identified -- or invented.

Baseball tests for steroids now, but not human growth hormone, with no urine test available and neither the commissioner's office nor the players' union embracing the blood test that scientists say could be widely available later this year.

"I don't know if this game will ever be completely clean," Jones said.

"There's so much stuff out there you can use to make yourself better than the next guy. It's just the world we live in. Guys are motivated by statistics and money. Whenever that happens, you'll have people who cheat."

And controversy might have nothing to do with performance-enhancing substances. Rodriguez, for example, generated headlines by slapping the ball out of an opponent's glove, shouting at an infielder waiting to catch a pop fly and escorting a "mystery blonde" around Toronto with his wife back home in New York.

"There's always going to be something," Young said. "A-Rod is a prime example. One day it's what happens on the field. The next day it's what happens off it."

On the field, the New York Yankees third baseman seems to be a lock to beat Bonds.

Bonds turns 43 this month. He hit his 500th home run at 36. Aaron hit his 500th home run at 34.

Rodriguez turns 32 this month. He has not been on the disabled list in seven years. At his current pace, he could hit 800 in 2013, at age 38.

Babe Ruth held the record for 53 years. Aaron has held it for 33 years. Bonds might hold it for six.

"A-Rod is going to hit 800 home runs," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said, "if he stays healthy."

That, of course, is the wild card. Before Rodriguez was the guy who was going to break Bonds' record, Ken Griffey Jr. was going to be that guy.

While Bonds hit his 300th home run at 31, Griffey hit his at 28. His chase appears over, however, after eight stints on the disabled list in the last six years. The Cincinnati Reds moved him from center field to right field this season, in an attempt to keep him on the field, and he made his 13th All-Star team.

Griffey said he would not dwell on "what if" questions -- particularly, "What if it were you pursuing the record instead of Rodriguez?"

"No. 1, we play different positions," Griffey said. "It helps. Staying healthy helps. When you look at it, Willie [Mays] is the only 600 guy that played center field.

"Everybody else played a less demanding position, or what they say is less demanding. It's a lot of running."

For his part, Rodriguez saluted Bonds for the pending 756 and deflected questions about his possible 800.

"I love Barry," Rodriguez said. "What he's doing is going to be awesome.

"It's not even my time to start thinking about that."

Jones took the time to salute both Bonds and Rodriguez -- "They're two of the best players I've ever seen. They'll both be in the Hall of Fame, regardless" -- but said the suspicions surrounding this era would dampen the celebrations for both, for others, far beyond just Bonds.

"Anybody who hits 600, 700, 800 home runs now," Jones said, "there will be questions regardless."

There is one question we can answer today. If Rodriguez breaks Bonds' record, would Bonds promise to be in attendance?

"I'll be there in a heartbeat," Bonds said. "I told him, 'Alex, you'll break it, and when you do, you don't have to worry about calling me. I'll be calling you.' "

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