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Thursday, March 15, 2007
The question of the season

By Jim Caple
Page 2

TEMPE, Ariz. -- There are many questions in baseball this spring. Why would any team give Gil Meche $55 million? How come the Roger Clemens Across America Tour never reaches the Kansas City Royals camp? And of course, would Human Growth Hormone explain Mr. Met's head?

Off Base

But this is the question that will hover over baseball all season:

Do you want Barry Bonds to break Hank Aaron's record or not?

It's a question that divides good friends -- such as Mark Homen, a Giants fan from the Bay Area, and Dan Anania, a Brewers fan from Arizona. They sat next to each other under the hot March sun at Tempe Diablo Stadium debating the issue as the Giants played the Angels. "I hope Barry does, I really do," Homen said. "I'm a baseball fan and he's one of the best players ever. You may not like his personality, but I admire his skills."

"Look,'' Anania said as Bonds stepped to the plate for the second time, "he's grown just since his last at-bat!"

Do you want Bonds to break the record? It's a question that divides families, such as John Cherne and his 14-year-old son, John Paul. Dad wants Bonds to break the record. The son doesn't. Which, John admits, is sort of the opposite of what you would expect in a father-son debate. "But he wants to be a youth minister when he grows up, so I expect him to take the moral stance," John said.

Do you want Bonds to break the record? It's not a question we really wrestled with when Aaron passed Babe Ruth 33 years ago. Sure, there were some Ruth fans who regretted seeing the Babe lose his crown and some loud racists who filled Aaron's mailbox with hate mail. But most of us cheered Hank on and applauded when he hit No. 715. There were no questions about whether he was worthy of the record or whether he might have cheated his way to it.

But these are the questions surrounding Bonds as he closes in on Aaron. He's 21 home runs away from Aaron, which is no sure thing when you're 43 and your knees could give out at any moment. On the other hand, Barry looks formidable again this spring. His bat glistened in the sun like a lightsaber Wednesday afternoon and he whipped it around like a drum major spinning a baton. If he stays healthy, he probably will pass Aaron sometime this summer.

So we'd better figure out how we feel about it. Of course, a lot of people have already made up their minds whether they're going to root for him in his chase with history.

Such as Adam Hughes, 26, who wore a subtle T-shirt that read "I HATE BONDS" on the front and had checkmarks on the back next to the words, BAT, GLOVE and STEROIDS. When Bonds struck out Wednesday, Hughes sarcastically cheered him. "Way to go Barry! Be careful on those fly balls out there!"

No, he is not rooting for Bonds.

"He's disgraced baseball,'' Hughes said. "Hopefully, he'll retire before he breaks the home run record."

Root for Barry to pass Hank? Root for Barry to get hurt and fall short? We may be divided in whether to root or not but we aren't divided on whether to watch. Tempe Diablo Stadium was overflowing with fans Wednesday and every one of them put down their drinks and focused their eyes on Bonds each time he batted. And when he finished, they went back to chatting or tanning or walking to the concession stands.

"It's exciting to watch him, you can't deny that," Frannie Aguiler said. "It's something to see the whole crowd react when he bats. They get quiet as he waits for the pitch and then there's this roar when he hits it. It's a love-hate relationship."

Root for Barry or root against him? It's not an easy question. Even the commissioner doesn't know whether he should show up for the moment.

Then there's Bill Timpano. He's 76. He grew up in Brooklyn and recalls the Dodgers players of that very different era helping kids play softball in the neighborhood. He's such a baseball fan that he knows the introductory verse to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and sang it on request Wednesday.

"I have nothing against Bonds personally and we know that all records are made to be broken," Timpano said. "But when they're broken, you'd like the person to be admirable and right now, I don't think he's admirable. With a record like that, there shouldn't be a cloud hanging over it."

Timpano is right. There shouldn't be a cloud over this chase. It should be as clear and blue as the spring training sky Wednesday.

But like it or not, there is a cloud. And it's not going away.

Are you going to root for Barry or root against him this year? You have 21 home runs to make up your mind.

Top Seed: Green Basketballs for Everyone

BOXSCORE LINE OF THE WEEK

Jamie Moyer turned 44 over the winter, not that you would know it. He still changes what little speed he has and hits his spots to keep batters constantly off balance. He was scheduled to throw 70-75 pitches in his start Sunday but he pitched so well that he only needed 59 in five innings. His line:

5 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K

The guy may pitch until he's 50.

TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP

The veteran committee's failure to vote Ron Santo or anyone else into the Hall of Fame recently is evidence that the procedures must be overhauled once again. The veterans may feel no compelling reason to vote in any players already deemed unworthy by the writers, but if so, what's the point of holding a vote at all? And we're sorry, Santo belongs in. Whether it's lowering the threshold from 75 percent to 70 or 67 percent, or changing who gets a vote, something needs to be done. …

So now Pete Rose admits he bet on the Reds "every game'' and says he no longer worries about getting into the Hall of Fame but wants to be reinstated so he can manage a team again. Yeah, like any team will hire a 66-year-old who used to bet regularly on his team. That said, after nearly 18 years Pete has done his penance and deserves to at least become eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot. Of course, it might be better for Rose NOT to be in the Hall of Fame. Right now, every time he speaks, he gets national attention. If he gets into Cooperstown, he instantly becomes yesterday's news and will just fade away. …

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.