By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Finally, Barry Bonds's pursuit of Babe Ruth has gotten interesting. Not because the Giants outfielder is so close to moving into second place on the all-time home run list. That's a foregone conclusion. This month, Bonds hit a ball 450 feet off the facing of the third deck in Philadelphia. He still has his moments. And there will be enough of them for him to hit a 715th homer.
But how many more games -- much less home runs -- are still left in Bonds? The answer may be a lot fewer than we thought. In Ruth's final partial season, when he was washed up, hitting .181, the Babe had six homers in 72 at-bats, including three homers in one last amazing game. But he was done, he knew it and quit in midseason.
Is Bonds, who went 1 for 3 against the Astros in Houston last night, closing in on a similar moment of decision?
For the past week, at home in San Francisco, the left fielder finally looked his age. For six games, he was naked before his enemies, even though he was playing before friends. Every time Bonds popped up or struck out, and even when a well-hit ball ended up in the glove of Juan Pierre inches above the center field fence, the expression that played on his face ranged from disgust to frustration to something akin to athletic fear.
Suddenly, as Bonds is on the verge of passing Ruth, the pertinent question is no longer whether Bonds can overtake Hank Aaron's total of 755 home runs next season. Now, after one single in 26 plate appearances in that whole homestand, a slump that left Bonds with a .217 batting average, the issue has become, "Is the end in sight for Barry?"
When sluggers get old, they often get old fast, sometimes almost overnight. Years ago, the late columnist Shirley Povich watched Ken Singleton strike out one night in Baltimore. "Too bad," Povich said. "What do you mean?" I said. "He's finished," Povich said. "He can't hit the fastball anymore. I saw it happen to [Lou] Gehrig and [Jimmie] Foxx, too."
When the pitchers find a quadrant of the plate where you can't handle the fastball anymore, then the countdown begins, because that's all you'll ever see again, mixed with just enough other pitches to expose your weakness even more.
Right now, Bonds can't hit the fastball low and away. His bad knee won't let him dig down and hit it with authority. And it's beneath Bonds to poke the ball to the opposite field. An obscure Dodgers southpaw, Joe Beimel, wearing No. 97, faced Bonds threes times last weekend. On just five pitches, four of them for strikes, Beimel got him out every time. Asked his plan, Beimel said he was just being aggressive.
Aggressive? With Barry Bonds? Isn't that like pulling the pin out of a grenade just to see if it works? Only two years ago, Bonds walked 232 times. In '04, Bonds amassed a statistical line that may never be approached. He batted .362, slugged .812 and had an on-base percentage of .609. Of course, that was before the BALCO scandal erupted. Since then, he has managed only 125 at-bats in two years. Now, his humble .476 slugging average is as damning as a volume of leaked testimony.
Sometimes, we miss the obvious. Before BALCO, Bonds was a great player, but never mentioned with names such as Ruth, Aaron, Ted Williams and Willie Mays. Then Bonds morphed into the best hitter who ever lived. However, he became so great so suddenly and at such an old baseball age that people said, "Was his head always that small?"
Throughout his career, Bonds has played with a chip on his shoulder and a mask on his emotions. He has wanted to appear invincible and untouchable. Outs were a mistake, home runs an inevitability. Now, his facade has cracked wide open. When Bonds hits a routine fly ball, he often smacks the barrel of his bat in anger before he even begins the obligatory jog out of the batter's box. When Pierre robbed him of what would've been homer No. 714, Bonds waved his arm disparagingly, dismissively at Pierre as if his excellent play in a close game were disgusting, an affront. How dare you?
But that's the point. Now, when it comes to Bonds, everyone dares, even Joe Beimel. In the wake of BALCO, the exhaustive exposé "Game of Shadows," an official MLB probe into steroids and the possibility that Bonds may have committed perjury before a grand jury, Bonds is now fair game for anyone. The New Yorker magazine recently ran a cartoon on its cover with normal-size baseball players at each position -- except in left field, where one gigantic man stands wearing No. 25. If that isn't evidence of an irreparably ruined athletic reputation, then it's close.
Bonds will now face a week on the road with No. 714 and 715 in sight -- what he didn't want. Perhaps only Bonds, often motivated by hostility and isolation, could respond well to the prospect of visiting cities where fans treat his arrival as a civic theme contest. So far, Philly is winning: "Ruth Did It With Hot Dogs and Beer. Aaron Did It With Class. What Did YOU Do It With?"
Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle welcomed him to town with a story about a 17-year-old Texas baseball player who, three years ago, killed himself in an incident that his parents believe was connected to his use of steroids.
When Bonds hits his 715th home run, there will be a huge national temptation to use the occasion for moralizing vilification. But perhaps that instant-gratification reaction should be tempered. If Bonds cheated, he didn't cheat alone; he just cheated best. If he broke the rules (and, technically, MLB has banned steroids since 1991), then he did it in a period when baseball had an implicit "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward any and all performance-enhancing substances.
And if, in passing Ruth, Bonds is reaching a cherished mark, then remember all the adulation that accompanied Mark McGwire's 70th home run. McGwire was frequently nagged about his use of "andro." But in the absence of BALCO-like evidence, he was given the benefit of the doubt. His humiliation was confined to one day on Capitol Hill when he refused to answer questions "about the past" in a Congressional investigation into exactly that past.
As Bonds rounds the bases for No. 715, don't feel guilty if a clap of the hands escapes you, an appreciation of the difficulty of what he did, even if he shouldn't have been able to do it quite so well. As he touches the plate in what may be his last truly historic baseball moment, try to appreciate the one harsh certainty about the remainder of Bonds's life. Whatever he did, the penalty he will pay -- in a multitude of forms -- will surely fit the crime. And probably much more.