By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO, April 2 -- Once every generation or so, baseball telegraphs an historic moment so big, it becomes part of the nation's cultural discourse. These are not the record-breaking performances that come out of nowhere, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, or the moments that need time to reveal themselves, like Roger Maris's 61 homers, but the ones you can see coming for months in advance -- like Hank Aaron reaching 713 homers at the end of 1973, then withstanding racist death threats all winter until he could hit 714 and 715 the following April, or Cal Ripken's baseball-saving lovefest of 1995, culminating in his 2,131st consecutive game on Sept. 6.
Baseball is on the verge of another of these moments as the San Francisco Giants prepare to open their season Tuesday afternoon at AT&T Park. When Barry Bonds jogs out to his station in left field for the top of the first inning, it will start the clock ticking toward an historic event that, while indisputably momentous, also is complex, messy and difficult to embrace fully, even here in his home town.
Bonds opens this season, his 22nd as a major leaguer, with 734 career homers, 21 shy of Aaron's all-time record. Seven hundred fifty-five is the most hallowed number in baseball -- a sport defined by its numbers and its records -- and Aaron's record is arguably the most treasured in all of American sports.
However, Bonds's involvement in baseball's ongoing steroid controversy has lent an unseemliness to the record chase, and an air of ambivalence to its perception around the game. This feeling is typified by the fact Aaron himself and Commissioner Bud Selig, who considers Aaron a close friend, thus far have remained silent about Bonds and whether they would attend the record-breaker. Even the Giants, who re-signed Bonds this winter to a one-year, $16 million contract, have been left to wonder how far they should go to celebrate the momentous milestone.
"There are a lot of themes, a lot of story lines for us this year," Giants Executive Vice President Larry Baer said Monday at the Giants' offices, noting the team's signing this winter of lefty Barry Zito to the richest contract ever for a pitcher, plus the team's hosting of the All-Star Game this July. "Given that, you're not going to see us overdo [the celebration for Bonds], or overwhelm people leading up to it, or even when it happens. We just want to have a proper sense of proportion.
"We'd be shirking our responsibilities if this was all Barry, all the time. And I think the fans don't want that. The fans want to see this operate as a team. If we're perceived as distancing ourselves [from Bonds], so be it. That's not the way I read it."
The Giants, in fact, reject the label of "celebration" to describe their plans when Bonds breaks Aaron's record. "It's more an 'appropriate recognition,' " Baer said. "It's hard to say on April 2 what that appropriate recognition should be."
Through a spokesperson, Selig declined to be interviewed for this article, but he told reporters during spring training in Arizona, "All I'll say is we'll mark the occasion like we have with everybody else." Privately, Selig has told associates he does not need to take a public stance toward Bonds, because there is a chance Bonds may not break the record.
When Bonds, who turns 43 in July, was asked this spring if he cares how baseball celebrates the historic homer, he said, "I just want to do it, period."
However, if Bonds stays on the field -- which is to say, if he avoids injury, indictment (by a federal grand jury investigating him for possible perjury and/or tax evasion) or suspension (by Major League Baseball, which is conducting an internal investigation, headed by former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, into steroid use) -- there is little reason to doubt the inevitability of his breaking Aaron's record. The only question is when?
After missing most of the 2005 season following multiple knee surgeries, Bonds hit 26 home runs in only 130 games last year, including nine in his final 24 games, and he hit seven in only 18 games this spring, including two Sunday in the Giants' spring finale.
"He's as locked-in as I've seen him in the last few years -- miles better than he looked at this time last year," said one scout who saw Bonds last week.
There is every reason to think, in other words, that Bonds will have already broken Aaron's record, say, by the time the Giants come to RFK Stadium in Washington for a three-game series starting Aug. 31. And even if he were on the cusp of the record at that point, history suggests Bonds would find a way to save the historic homer -- much as he has with almost all his previous milestone homers -- for a home game.
But if it does happen at home, it seems unlikely Bonds's record-setting moment will produce the sort of iconic images like those made famous by Ripken's record-breaking game on Sept. 6, 1995 -- the huge numbers that counted up toward 2,131 on the wall of the Camden Yards' B&O Warehouse, and the "victory lap" around the stadium.
Asked how he would handle Bonds's record from a public relations standpoint, former Orioles public relations director John Maroon laughed and said, "I'd probably resign."
Aaron's record "is the biggest record in sports, but you can celebrate it without pulling out all the bells and whistles and having a national celebration," said Maroon, who was with the Orioles from 1995 to '99 and who now runs his own PR firm with Ripken as a client. "Most people in their hearts are not going to recognize it as a legitimate record, but you have to treat it like a record. Maybe not like when Cal broke [Lou] Gehrig's record, because of the purity Cal stood for. But you have to acknowledge the breaking of the biggest record of all time."
At AT&T Park on Tuesday, the Giants' Opening Day festivities will focus on the All-Star Game -- with a special pregame introduction of the team's past all-stars (including Bonds) -- but there will be no mention of the home run chase, save for a small counter in the right field corner that keeps track of Bonds's homer total. Vendors will sell programs, called "G Magazine," with Zito on the cover and a feature inside on utility infielder Kevin Frandsen, but with no stories about Bonds.
And then Bonds will come to the plate in the bottom of the first inning, and his fans will cheer, his critics will boo, and the assault on the greatest baseball record of them all will begin. The homer counter sits at 734. Baseball has 22 homers to go to figure out what to do about Barry Bonds.