Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Thomas Boswell: Spite, Not Might, Propels Bonds's Chase

Thomas Boswell
The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 31, 2006; Page E01

The term "posterized" was coined for NBA players who appeared on posters as Michael Jordan dunked on their heads. Now, players duck out of the frame when Shaq, Kobe or LeBron jam on top of them. Who needs such immortality?

On Sunday, the entire San Francisco team avoided being posterized by Barry Bonds as he crossed home plate after he hit his 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth. The only person there to meet him was the batboy -- his son. Who needs such immortality?

Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel said the team wanted Bonds to "be able to have his moment."
Yes, a moment alone.

When Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run in '74, two fans jumped out of the stands in Atlanta to run the bases with him. Braves in the bullpen jockeyed for the honor of grabbing the ball. None of Aaron's teammates shied away from sharing the moment with Hank.

These days, when Bonds's batting (.239) and slugging (.423) averages in May are below the big league norm, the 41-year-old looks like he may not have 41 more home runs left in him. But if he ever does hit No. 756 to pass Aaron, his teammates may hide in the dugout tunnel or lock themselves in the clubhouse as he runs the bases.

Don't rule out an Aaron chase, one much more ugly than the last few weeks, when Bonds needed 73 plate appearances to hit Nos. 714 and 715. As long as the gimpy Giant can stand upright in the box, and there are enough people screaming, "Quit the game, you cheater," Bonds may have just the right fuel -- bile -- to keep on playing.

"If my health is good and I feel like I can play, then I'm going to play," Bonds said on Monday, the day after the remnants of the national media who had been his Ruth-race prisoners finally were released to the custody of their families. "My son keeps telling me, 'Dad, you can still play.' I told him, 'You get straight A's and I'll consider it.' "

The longer Bonds plays, the more he threatens to keep chasing Aaron -- and that's what it is, a threat -- the more obvious it becomes that his desire for the spotlight, his need for one more "Bonds on Bonds," his whole state of muted, persecuted rage, has replaced the affection he once held for the sport he played so magnificently.

Once, you couldn't find a player who spoke more from the heart about his passion for playing his sport properly. And he maintained that love despite a twisted history with the game. When Barry Bonds was between the ages of 10 and 17, his father, Bobby, changed teams seven times, always amid controversy and rejection. After that, Barry Bonds's relationship to the game had an alarming darkness as he developed a soul-deep, chip-on-the-shoulder need to dominate the sport and, in a sense, punish it as well, both in the name of the father.

Those who judge Bonds need to remember the diabolical confluence in the late '90s of his father's worsening health, the ubiquity of steroids in a sport that was indifferent to their use and the arrival of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to usurp his place -- presumably won fairly -- as the game's best player. Macbeth's witches couldn't make a nastier stew.

Now, however, all that subtlety in trying to understand and appreciate Bonds is likely to be distilled down to simplistic barbs. Old-timers such as Bob Feller call him a disgrace to baseball. Phillies pitcher Cory Lidle said of his performance, "I don't think it's legitimate," and former teammate Jeff Kent took Lidle's side. Red Sox pitcher David Wells said he was convinced Bonds had cheated by using steroids. Even the fan who caught home run ball No. 714 said he hated Bonds.

In response, Bonds seems tempted to keep chasing Aaron for emotional revenge. "Take that," for all the Balco, FBI, MLB and grand jury investigations, not to mention the million bleacher insults. Yet even as Bonds clasps his bitter 715th home run, the game seems determined to replace him, erase him. The instrument of choice: Albert Pujols, on pace for 82 homers.

Pujols is modest, yet a leader; massively built, but not suspiciously disproportional. He's the kind of player who wants to give himself up to advance the runner from second to third by grounding out to second base but, instead, usually hits the ball over the right field wall by mistake.

The infinite promise of Pujols, the hope that he may cleanse the game's image by surpassing Bonds, is the sport's spring obsession. Realists will point out that the more homers he hits, the more he will be walked intentionally -- or pitched around -- as the season progresses. Also, Pujols already has expanded his strike zone, swinging at pitches both up and up-and-in. He may hit them out of the park occasionally now, but can he hit them for six months?

Still, this Albert fantasy should not be dismissed out of hand. In his sixth season, Pujols already is one of the best hitters who ever lived. Bonds has a .299 career batting average and .609 slugging percentage. Pujols's marks are .331 and .630. The proper measure of Pujols is not Bonds, but Ted Williams (.344, .634) and Ruth (.342, .690).

As unlikely as it is that anybody will hit 74 homers, Pujols may have one advantage. Home run totals have jumped this season -- up 7.7 percent if the current pace continues. However, even when the weather turns hot (and the ball travels a little farther), it's unlikely the game will match its home run totals of '00, '99 and '01 -- its three highest seasons.

For the moment, baseball has found relief. It turns its eyes from Bonds's interminable No. 715 quest to the immediacy of Pujols's next turn at bat. For those who prefer such fairy tales, baseball never quite fills the bill, does it? In what sort of place would Red Sox and White Sox fans have to wait 86 and 88 years to enjoy one World Series win? The answer, please: Why, the real world, of course.

That's where we find ourselves with Bonds. Pujols is unlikely to finesse the Barry problem for us. Baseball will have to live with Bonds, digest Bonds and, to a degree, accept Bonds as the dark side of the game's post-strike lust to regain its stature relative to other major sports. Economics and institutional pride displaced conscience. The game was determined to come back to its former place in America, at any cost, even if it meant blind-eye countenancing of cheating with health-destroying drugs.

Would we even wish, for taking such cynical risks, that a sport should get away clean? Now that the bills are due, what was the sport's true cost? The price was Bonds. From his foul moods to his refusal to retire, he is baseball's proper punishment. He haunts the game nightly. Any at-bat may move him closer to Aaron. And like a guilty conscience, he cannot be wished away.

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