Time for Bonds To Go First Class

"If I walk away from the game, knowing I can still play the game, I wouldn't have a happy ending," said Barry Bonds. (Jeff Chiu - AP)
By Sally Jenkins
Monday, July 16, 2007

There is a way for Barry Bonds to redeem the irredeemable situation that baseball is in. He could preserve the integrity of the game, assuming he wishes to preserve anything but himself, with a decent gesture that would earn back the public's trust. When the moment comes, when Henry Aaron's clean and scrupulous home run record hangs over the plate in the shape of a hittable pitch, Bonds could lay down the bat, and step away from the plate.

As if such a thing would happen. It's a fairy tale, strictly something from an old MGM film, a more innocent era. There won't be any such pat, satisfying story line for Bonds, Aaron, or baseball. Instead, there's only the slow and disagreeable march toward an asterisk, Bonds's glowering weekly trudge from dugout to plate through the boos, his every swing bracketed by Aaron's shouting judgmental silence and Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig's craven moral writhing. What does it say that the cleanest end to this whole rotten mess would be for Bonds to tank?

The closer Bonds gets to Aaron's home run record, the further he seems removed from Aaron himself. Each time Bonds homers, or often as not lately, strikes out, and each time he speaks a churlish word, Aaron grows in simple honor. It's tempting to say that Aaron belongs to a more innocent time. But things were not necessarily simpler for Aaron than for Bonds, and they certainly weren't easier for a poor kid from Alabama who learned to swing by hitting bottle caps with sticks. It's just that when he set his own record, in circumstances less than clear, Aaron knew what the right thing was, and did it.

There were two greats at work that day, Aaron and Red Smith, a writer of impeccable judgment, exquisite literacy and unfailingly temperate delivery. If Aaron knew what the right thing was, Smith knew just how to describe it. At some time in these next couple of weeks, Bonds will stand in a park with his 756th home run at the end of a bat, and he will swing it. We'll all be confused about how to feel and what needs to be said when it heads for the fence. Many hearts will sink as the ball rises. Maybe it behooves us to look back at a couple of men who knew just how to act, and what to say, the last time the record was at stake.

The situation was this: Aaron came to bat on Opening Day in April 1974, after weeks of mounting debate and pressure, just one away from Babe Ruth's home run record of 714. The Braves were starting the season with a three-game series in Cincinnati, to be followed by an 11-game homestand. Braves president Bill Bartholomay wanted to bench Aaron for the Cincinnati series, so that the home run chase would occur at home, and the Braves could cash in at the box office. But commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in what Smith termed "a rare exercise of authority," ordered the Braves to put Aaron on the field in Cincinnati. To leave Aaron, the cleanup hitter, out of the lineup would be the same as dumping the games, Kuhn declared.

Aaron, caught between competing pressures and loyalties, might have left the bat on his shoulder. Instead, when the first fastball came across the plate he took a full, honest cut at it -- and tied Ruth's record with his 714th homer. "The only way it could have been better would have been for Henry to hit the very first pitch, the one thrown by Gerald Ford," Smith wrote.

It's worth reciting more of Smith's column for the New York Times that day. This is what clarity sounds like: "Of all the contributions Hank Aaron has made to baseball in 20 blameless years, of all his accomplishments as a player and his acts of graciousness, generosity and loyalty as a person, none was half so valuable as his achievement of yesterday," Smith wrote. "It isn't only that his 714th home run matched a record that for more than 40 years was considered beyond human reach, and it isn't particularly important that this courteous, modest man has at last overtaken Babe Ruth's roistering ghost. What really counts is that when Henry laid the wood on Jack Billingham's fastball, he struck a blow for the integrity of the game and for public faith in the game. With one stroke he canceled schemes to cheapen his pursuit of the record by making it a carnival attraction staged for the box office alone, and he rendered moot two months of wrangling between the money-changers and the Protectors of the Faith."

No one will write that way of Bonds. His circumstances are exactly the reverse of Aaron's. A commissioner has refused to exercise authority, more concerned with commerce. Bonds's testimony in the Balco steroids scandal has weakened public faith, and his every swing has seemed to strike at the integrity of the game. His pursuit of the record has seemed exactly like a carnival attraction.

"They boo, but all them cameras flash every time I swing, don't they?" Bonds said last week.

Bonds should do the exact reverse of what Aaron did. He should lay down the bat, and step away from the plate. But nothing in Bonds's unrelentingly self-absorbed public behavior suggests he wants to do anything for the good of baseball. You wonder if, anywhere inside, Bonds knows the real distance between him and Henry Aaron, both in numbers and in conduct.

You wonder if a man approaching 43 years old, chased by boos, and soured by cynicism, can find a measure of innocence in himself again. It's an interesting question. But there is at least one sign that Bonds is after something a record can't give him. Unbelievably, Bonds said the other day that he wants to play ball again next season, because, "If I walk away from the game, knowing I can still play the game, I wouldn't have a happy ending." A happy ending? After all this damage and notoriety? It was an impossibly naive thing to say. But there it was.

There is only one possible happy ending. Bonds would have to give up his own happy ending in favor of Aaron's. He'd have to lay down the bat. Step away from the plate. Now there would be a return to innocence for all of us, him included.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company