May 2, 2006
The New York Times
HERE'S a modest proposal for Barry Bonds's next career move: Affix a toe plate to his shoe and try pitching.
That's right. It's one thing to pass Babe Ruth in home runs, but Bonds might like to emulate the Babe's pitching record — 94 victories, 46 losses, earned run average of 2.28. Even at this late date, the Babe's pitching numbers still boggle my mind.
I know, I know, Bonds's body is wearing down as he approaches his 42nd birthday on July 24, and Ruth did almost all his pitching between 18 and 24. But that's my point: before Ruth became the most important player in baseball history, he was already a great pitcher, who might have matched the longevity records of Cy Young, Warren Spahn and Nolan Ryan. We will never know.
The Babe has been on everybody's minds lately, as Bonds approaches his lifetime home run total of 714, with Henry Aaron's record of 755 sitting out there, majestically. Bonds, who had 711 homers going into last night's game with San Diego, is going to pass the Babe soon. And that's all right. It's really all right.
Bonds is an odious human being, with a steroid scandal and the potential of a perjury indictment hanging over him, but fans are fortunate to watch him hobble to home plate and launch a home run with his awesome short stroke on the only good pitch he will see all day. There is room for Bonds to be a cheat, a bully, a whiner and a superb hitter. Besides, nobody touches the Babe.
I have been wrestling with this for the past couple of years. At first, I found myself actively rooting against Bonds because he is a churl (and not just to the press; he is actively miserable toward most people).
Flinching in negative body English is a waste of time, however. I have come to believe that Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth live in their contexts while Bonds stews in his own sour juices.
Sometimes we need to go back over the legend of George Herman Ruth, the raw kid from the Baltimore training school who won all three of his World Series starts, pitching 31 innings with an E.R.A. of 0.87. But in a time when home runs were virtually considered a lucky coincidence, Ruth hit so many that the Red Sox could not afford to keep him on the bench three days out of four.
Ruth transformed his sport more than any other American has done. Muhammad Ali had a greater social impact, far beyond boxing, and Michael Jordan gave a huge commercial boost to basketball in a later time. But the Babe, coming on strong after the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, saved what used to be considered the national pastime, and may still be, deep down.
Bonds cannot save baseball from anything, certainly not himself, in the wake of his possible perjury in the Balco case or possible tax evasion over his cash earnings from autograph sales. He has tried to play the race card by saying "they" — whoever "they" are — didn't want a black man to pass the Babe, but that is just plain desperate.
The only racial angle with Ruth is that the Babe never got to compete against the great black athletes who were banned from the 1880's to 1947. But the Babe, an instinctively great athlete, would have done well against any competition of the time; the white mediocrities are another story.
In reality, there is room for many great players, including Bonds — either the 185-pound whippet who stole 52 bases and hit 33 homers in 1990, or the 235-pound behemoth who hit 73 homers and stole 13 bases in 2001, when he was bulking up on flaxseed oil, as he likes to claim, or something more potent and illegal, as his suppliers have testified.
As for the theory that the Babe (a carouser and a beer-drinker and a glutton) would have opted for steroids or amphetamines if they had been available, well, he never got the chance. Bonds, given the chance, seems to have obsessively cheated, as demonstrated in the current book "Game of Shadows," by the journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.
After mucking in the shadows with Bonds, it is instructive to walk into the sunshine with a great player who was also a hero. Thirty-three years after the rickety airplane crashed off Puerto Rico, while starting a mission to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua, Roberto Clemente is having a comeback in the new book "Clemente," by David Maraniss.
Only now are people debriefing their impressions of this smart, proud right fielder with the sensational arm and quick bat. Clemente is worth knowing, Bonds is not. And there are more where they came from — Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson, who may have been the best clutch hitter of that magnificent generation.
There's room for all of them in our memories, but there was only one Babe. Actually, two — pitcher and slugger. Somebody give Barry a toe plate.