Those of us who still fantasize that baseball's career home run mark is the most hallowed record in sports took comfort early on the evening of Aug. 4, when Alex Rodriguez became the youngest player in history to reach 500. Perhaps the record will be saved after all.
Later that same evening, Barry Bonds finally reached 755, tying Henry Aaron for the career record. Just as Aaron once legitimized the record with No. 715 one April evening in 1974, Bonds took it to ruin last weekend.
To say Aaron legitimized the record, of course, isn't to disparage Babe Ruth so much as to point out that the Bambino played under advantageous circumstances. African-American players were excluded when Ruth set his record of 714, which stood nearly 40 years from the day of his retirement in 1935.
Ruth didn't create the circumstance. He just made a nice living from it.
Of course, that goes for nearly everyone who prospers from institutional racism. One doesn't have to be a bigot to cash in.
But Ruth only cashed in. That's neither to his fault nor to his credit.
The Bonds matter is of a much more devious and dishonest sort, we suppose. Contrary to the dull bulbs of a professional butt-kisser or two at the four-letter network, the fact that Bonds has never failed a drug test bears not at all on the question of whether he's polluted his achievements and the entire game by using steroids.
During the seasons in question, after all, baseball didn't even administer steroid tests. Many believe that's the only reason Bonds never flunked one.
We don't know how many he's taken since. For lack of a smoking gun, we can't say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bonds used steroids, but the preponderance of circumstantial evidence has ruined him in every context except courts of law, and the courts are working on it.
Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson, has pleaded guilty to steroid distribution. At age 35, to which Bonds arrived right after the travesties of 1998, he began producing as never before while his head grew to twice its size and his body grew with it. Two San Francisco reporters, backed by grand jury testimony and numerous interviews, have made a very compelling case that Bonds used steroids.
Along with all that, Bonds is under investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice for possible perjury after he told a grand jury in the BALCO case that he never knowingly took steroids. And, of course, Major League Baseball is running its own investigation about past steroid use by baseball players, though it's understood that the query is squarely pointed at Bonds.
The Bonds affair is such an obvious mess that one can almost judge another human being's gullibility by his willingness to overlook the issue. Major League Commissioner Bud Selig certainly isn't taken in. He appeared in San Diego at the behest of media pressure for Bonds' record-tying home run, then made the most eloquent possible statement by standing stone-faced with his hands in his pockets as Bonds rounded the bases.
At that moment, the so-called "most hallowed record in sports" wore the stain of dishonesty and a landmark achievement occasioned no more than tepid applause. By then, the wait had already begun for a cheated nation looking to Rodriguez for the record's redemption.
Assuming Rodriguez isn't juiced — and he's never been accused — he now becomes the hero and flame runner for those who want Bonds displaced. Which raises the obvious question: What would have to happen?
To begin, much depends on how long Bonds lasts. His body has broken down to the extent that he can play only four or five games per week. Through July, he averaged five home runs per month this season. Supposing he keeps that rate, he'll finish the year right around 764 career homers. Then comes the matter of whether and where he'd play next year.
As the San Francisco Giants might finally decide to change direction and let Bonds go, it seems he'd be headed to an American League club, for whom he could work as a designated hitter. But at the money he's likely to want, call it $15 million per year on the low end, he's not an attractive option for anyone.
The most obvious destination, some believe, is the Los Angeles Angels. But that could seem unlikely by the offseason, because the Angels might be fixated on a different slugging free agent.
At the end of this season, Rodriguez can opt out of his contract, a 10-year, $252 million agreement with the Texas Rangers that shocked all of baseball when he signed it in 2001. Since Rodriguez moved to the New York Yankees by trade in 2004, he's basically media food, which has got to be a sickening position for anyone but the most obnoxious extrovert.
The negotiation tug-of-war between Rodriguez and the Yankees already has begun in the media, where the Yankees have announced they want to work out a new deal now and Rodriguez, through reviled agent Scott Boras, is saying he wants to wait. It would seem the market for Rodriguez will be confined to three or four deep-pocketed baseball clubs, of which the Yankees are the richest.
But now that Rodriguez has reached 500 home runs at 32 years and eight days old, other considerations could come into play. For one, left field at Yankee Stadium is among the deepest in the game: 379 feet to the left field power alley and 399 feet to deepest left-center field. The new Yankee Stadium, scheduled to open in 2009, is planned for the same dimensions.
Presumably, a right-handed hitter with a chance of becoming the all-time home run king would like a more favorable environment.
Then again, the options for a player commanding huge money aren't wonderful. Boston's Fenway Park is famous for a short left field and a 37-feet high left field wall, which takes as many homers as it gives. Citifield, which is supposed to open for the New York Mets in 2009, is planned for 379 feet to left-center, though without the Death Valley outer depths of Yankee Stadium. Dodger Stadium goes 385 feet to the left-field power alley.
One almost wishes Rodriguez would sign with the Chicago Cubs, where the friendly confines of Wrigley Field could push him over 750 homers within five years. But the Tribune Company is selling Cubs, so the club probably isn't keen about exposing itself to another large future salary.
The best option, apparently, is the Angels, whose home field goes 365 feet to the left-field alley, though with a deep alley of 395 feet. Furthermore, the Angels are said to be hot for A-Rod.
By the end of last weekend, the wait had already begun for a new home run king, and Bonds hadn't even passed Aaron.
Everybody loves a comeback story, especially those who want the home run record back. That makes Rodriguez' contractual decision this winter a key event, for more than the usual competitive reasons.