Bonds' HR pursuit a definite hot-button issue

When and if Barry Bonds ever becomes the all-time home run king, will baseball treat the moment as a big thing or nothing that special?

Originally Published: January 29, 2007
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN The Magazine

When and if the most controversial ball in the game's history travels over the fence, and Barry Bonds rounds the bases as baseball's all-time home run leader, who will rise in the stands to applaud? Will it be commissioner Bud Selig? Will it be the man whose record Bonds just eclipsed -- and good friend of Selig's -- Hank Aaron? Will either of the men be present? Should they?

How to celebrate a record that most believe was obtained by a person whom very few people have an affinity for, and who is believed to have at least partially achieved the prestigious record -- arguably the greatest in all of sport -- with the aid of illegal muscle-building chemicals?

In polling executives around the game, that debate, above all others they say, is the one likely to carry through the season and the one which poses a very uncomfortable question: How do Selig and baseball fete Bonds' feat?

"Baseball fans around the world owe Barry Bonds a debt of gratitude for being lucky enough to watch him play. He should be treasured by the national pastime, and a grand celebration by the commissioner's office should be in order."
-- Jeff Borris, Bonds' agent

"It saddens me to think that there is any dilemma whatsoever on whether or not to celebrate Barry breaking the most coveted record in all of sports," said Jeff Borris, the agent for Bonds. "Barry's on-field accomplishments are unparalleled in the history of baseball. They are the result of his work ethic and determination to make himself the best he could possibly be in his chosen vocation."

Over a half-dozen general managers who responded gave varying responses about baseball's quandary, though all agreed it should be celebrated. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, all asked their names not be used.

"Tough issue, glad I'm not in Selig's shoes on this one," an AL GM said. "That said, I think the most appropriate compromise is to turn the event into a celebration of Hank Aaron. MLB could play up how significant a figure Aaron was, how much he and his generation of ground-breaking African-Americans had to overcome. Talk about how meaningful his record is and how it doesn't lose meaning just because the game has become more HR-oriented in recent years.

"It would be tough to pull off, but may be the only way to officially recognize the event without being completely hypocritical."

BALCO, the book about it, and circumstantial evidence alone suggest Bonds at one time used performance-enhancing drugs, widely believed to help provide a player with more power at the plate. Around the time of his reported use, Bonds went on a home run rampage. None of this is new information. In fact, if anything, the public may be OD'd on Bonds/BALCO/steroids coverage.

And, as some GMs point out, Bonds isn't the lone player among his peers who's under suspicion. But just 22 home runs from passing Aaron, Bonds is alone in his quest of a hallowed record set by a man who achieved it in a time of oppression and inherent racism, while simultaneously doing it with class.

"I think the Bonds case is unfortunate, and I think his personality has intensified the scrutiny," one NL GM said. "But, the facts are still unclear, and his misdeeds [if true] are probably not atypical in his era."

Separate from that, however, remains the delicate situation Selig will face as Bonds nears the mark. Selig, after all, launched an investigation into his sport based on information contained in Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada's best-selling book, "Game Of Shadows." Now should Selig stand up and applaud a person who might have been the impetus for a dissection of the game's recent ugly history?

"It's a huge issue," another AL GM said. "How [Selig] handles it will be symbolic in other ways as well. If he, in essence, 'forgives' Bonds by attending then how can he not 'forgive' Pete Rose for his [gambling] indiscretion as well?

"He needs to be consistent in this area and a lot of people will be watching."

Selig's spokesman, Rich Levin, did not respond to the question of whether Selig would attend the historic event.

"We haven't made any plans yet," Levin said. "We've only had preliminary discussions. All I can say at this point is that we will acknowledge a new record in an appropriate way."

Borris added that if people applied themselves to their occupations in the way Bonds does, the world would be better off.

"Baseball fans around the world owe Barry Bonds a debt of gratitude for being lucky enough to watch him play," Borris said. "He should be treasured by the national pastime, and a grand celebration by the commissioner's office should be in order."

Cold Plate Special: Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens
Clemens
It seems the debate about Roger Clemens and whether he will pitch again in 2007 (and which team he may sign with) is already ignited. Of course, there is always intrigue about a Hall of Fame pitcher who is able to pitch at an extremely high level well into his 40s.

But the time for speculation should have ended a while ago. Robinson Cano giving up his No. 22 jersey withb the Yankees may mean Clemens is slotted for a June reunion in the Bronx. But don't for a second believe you can read into any of it; not the Cano number shuffle, the inevitable pitches Clemens will get from players on the three teams, and "friends close to Clemens' thinking" stories.

Because it's all complete speculation, and because his long-time agent, Randy Hendricks, for years has never led anyone to believe what Clemens will do until the very last moment. Why bother weighing what is going on in his mind this time?

What we know is that we don't know anything. And we won't until it's time for him to decide.

Of course, this is all moot if Bonds and the Giants fail to agree on a new contract. Most in the game believe Bonds and the Giants will come to an agreement on a one-year deal. If that happens, then the conversation will shift and the debate really will begin.

"The media and fans will still have every opportunity to opine," added the NL GM, who thinks it should receive full and proper acknowledgment.

"I probably have equal disdain for the alleged indiscretions of Bonds as I do a Hall of Fame ballot omitting [Cal] Ripken and [Tony] Gwynn in some lame attempt at a self-righteous stance."

First it was the baseball writers' stance, will Selig be next?

Some other debates

1. Bonds isn't the only player this season going for a home-run benchmark. Albeit not as lofty as 756, but Sammy Sosa is just 12 homers away from 600. There isn't a book, a jailed personal trainer or a federal goverment investigation (that we know of) involving Sosa. But his name is uttered in the same breath as Bonds, Jason Giambi and Mark McGwire. And now at the age of 38, he's close to attempting a comeback with the Texas Rangers.

After a year spent out of the game, why would Sosa want to expose himself to more scrutiny -- especially as Bonds could simultaneously be going for history? Jon Daniels, the Rangers' GM, said the organization debated internally how the steroid cloud -- no matter how speculative it may be -- could affect the team.

"We talked about it, knowing what a hot-button topic it's been recently -- and rightfully so," Daniels said. "How and where do you draw the line based on speculation? I have a lot of confidence in the commissioner's [drug-testing] program. If Sammy's productive and helps us win, the focus will shift pretty quickly. If not, [the media] won't spend much time talking about it anyway."

Sosa was signed to a minor league deal for a reason: He hit just .221 in an injury-riddled 2005 season with the Orioles, and he's been away from the game for the past year. Can Sosa come back strong, make the team and reach his personal benchmark?

"Of course that's a debate, if it weren't he wouldn't be signing a non-roster deal," Daniels said. "The bottom line is Sammy's determined to prove people wrong, that he's got more in the tank. Now he's got to go out and actually do it. We're giving him the opportunity; it's up to him to make the most of it."

2. Will Randy Johnson's homecoming be a happy, productive affair? Or will Johnson's 43-year-old body and bad back prevent him from pitching well for the Diamondbacks, or prevent him from pitching at all?

The left-hander is out of New York, back home with his family, and best of all, moving to the National League, a nice welcome-home present. In addition, Johnson won't even have to be the ace, or savior, with Brandon Webb slotted as the Diamondbacks' No. 1 guy. If Johnson is healthy and can be a strong member of the rotation, Arizona will have maybe an outside chance of being a contender in the pitching-heavy NL West.

Honorable mention: Tigers, Leyland and P-F-P
The drops, miscues and errant throws throughout the playoffs, in particular the World Series, did not endear Tigers pitchers to their manager. Jim Leyland didn't seem like he was joking when he said in front of a crowded press room during the Series that on the first day of spring training his hurlers would be lining up for traditional fielding drills, known as pitchers' fielding practice.

P-F-P is probably one of the least favorite tasks pitchers are asked to participate in. So on the first day of reporting, when catchers and pitchers don't even need to put on a uniform, will Leyland be waiting in the infield?

Amy K. Nelson is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine.