Barry vs. The Babe

Updated: February 28, 2006, 11:01 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It's a fairly straightforward question, when you get down to it: If Barry Bonds takes a full ration of bad vibes from the baseball public as he passes Babe Ruth, will it be because Bonds is African-American, because Bonds is arrogant, because Bonds is tied to a steroids scandal, or because Bonds is taking down the Babe and not somebody else?

Barry Bonds
AP/Ben MargotThough he was quick to salute Hank Aaron's place in baseball lore, Barry Bonds hasn't shied away from his pursuit of Babe Ruth's mark.
And the answer is: Sure.

Sure it is. All of those. And just about any effort to parse the thing otherwise is guaranteed to end badly.

There is a great temptation to put every bit of Bonds' image battles back on Bonds. He does that. In his temperament, in his almost legendary surliness and a chronic inability to consistently project the character for which he wishes to be known, he invites the backlash that comes his way.

It's a list too long to recite and full of examples that could be pulled out of almost any season, so let's concentrate on only the most recent: This year, with Bonds needing seven home runs to pass Ruth (714) on baseball's all-time list, the Giants' slugger struck a deal with ESPN Entertainment to make a reality show of his chase, then tried to demand of every reporter covering the team that he sign an on-camera waiver before asking Bonds any interview questions.

That demand was later amended to cover only one-on-one interviews, meaning it's pointless, since Bonds virtually never sits down alone with a reporter anymore except in a rare, handpicked case. But you understand: That's Barry being Barry, and it is one more reason why he is portrayed the way he is.

Babe Ruth
No matter where his place on baseball's home run list, Babe Ruth will remain the game's preeminent icon.
Race? Well, sure: Bonds invited that issue, too. It was back during the 2003 All-Star break that Bonds made it clear the person whose body of work he wanted to take down was Ruth, the white player who dominated baseball at a time when African-Americans were barred from the major leagues. He has said the hardest thing about chasing Ruth is the racial issue. As for Henry Aaron, Bonds once said Aaron could keep the all-time homer record, because Bonds considered Aaron a trailblazer for his race in the league. Even if you don't believe Bonds would ever stop short of Aaron if he thought he could set the homer record, the statement speaks to Bonds' view of the baseball world around him.

The steroid angle can't be overstated; it hovers over everything connected with Bonds' pursuit of Ruth (or Aaron, for that matter). The leaked grand jury testimony, in which Bonds reportedly said he used flaxseed oil and arthritis balm that some say may have been steroid substances, confirmed for some the suspicions they'd carried for years.

And then there's Ruth, the first true superstar in the sport. That wasn't a home-run mark Ruth held; it was an iconic standard. Ruth was and remains a legendary figure -- and a white one. Aaron passed him amid some truly hateful circumstances. It's fact. Surely there is room for all that in the conversation. For some people, including at times Bonds himself, it is the conversation.

That is precisely where the subject falls short, because race isn't the only factor that comes into play where Bonds is concerned. Depending upon your view, it might not even be in the top three.

I'd argue that there is a more whole-body effect at work here. Bonds is dark-skinned, yes, but if he hadn't been so publicly combative so many times in his career, would his skin color matter to a great extent? On the other hand, Bonds can be churlish and self-absorbed, but wasn't the same always true about Mark McGwire? Yet McGwire was cut slack from the time he passed the single-season home run record right up to last year, when his image unraveled before Congress. What's the difference?

Does Bonds' race matter when it comes to steroids? Not so sure about that. Sammy Sosa was beloved, but ultimately shunned. McGwire's image, though seemingly rustproof for years, finally crumbled. Rafael Palmeiro was popular enough that he had people rallying behind him from several corners before his own positive test transformed him to the most often lampooned figure of the steroid hearings.

And as much as people loved Willie Mays as a player, there was no major ruffling of feathers when Bonds blew past his godfather's home-run mark of 660 a few years back. Passing Mays seemed to be OK, perhaps because Mays was around to make it so. Ruth is gone. It is a generation of baseball fans who deign to speak for his memory.

In his public comments, Bonds has tended to suggest that his being a black man is behind most of the difficulty he faces in being accepted for the player in baseball history that he has become. It's an alluring argument, with roots in history. Alas, it just ignores too much.

The reality is nowhere near as simple. In the end, the people who struggle with Barry Bonds do so on any number of levels, the same as the people who celebrate Bonds' achievements and look for the achievement to come. It isn't all because Bonds is an African-American man. It's because he is the most extraordinarily talented, complex and even self-contradictory one. Try fitting that into a single headline.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

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