A History Question

The moment Barry Bonds connected for his 756th home run will likely be viewed as the pinnacle of the Steroid Era, not its end.
The moment Barry Bonds connected for his 756th home run will likely be viewed as the pinnacle of the Steroid Era, not its end. (Richard Clement - Reuters)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- On Tuesday night, Barry Bonds produced the defining moment of his unparalleled career, slamming his 756th career homer to seize sole possession of baseball's most cherished record. But for the sport itself, Bonds's historic homer also represents a defining moment in another, less savory episode: that of the steroid era.

As history sorts through Bonds's career in the context of the era in which he played -- a process that could crystallize when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame five years after he retires -- Tuesday night's dramatic climax to the record chase is likely to join the 1998 home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the infamous March 2005 congressional hearing into steroids, as the enduring images of a scandal that seemingly has no end.

As a practical matter, while Babe Ruth held baseball's all-time home run record for 53 years and Hank Aaron held it alone for 33 years, Bonds's grip on the record could be far shorter. New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 32, recently became the youngest player in history to reach 500 career homers, and barring injury or steep decline could threaten the all-time record in his late 30s.

In the interim, there will be those who claim Bonds's record is illegitimate -- and even deserving of a special designation, such as an asterisk -- because he was allegedly aided by steroids during the most productive years of his career. Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig himself has added weight to this argument by declining numerous opportunities to give Bonds's record his stamp of approval. Selig's ambivalent feelings toward Bonds are in stark contrast to his unabashed adoration of Aaron, whom he considers a good friend.

"I'm not going to pass judgment," Selig said in response to a question about the legitimacy of Bonds's record, "nor should I."

Selig, a student of baseball history, is keenly aware of the precedent for assigning an asterisk to an unpopular record. In 1961, then-commissioner Ford Frick did just that in regards to Roger Maris's single-season record of 61 homers, because, Frick reasoned, the record was achieved during a 162-game season, while Ruth's previous record of 60 was set in 1927 during a 154-game season.

However, Selig's associates believe it is highly unlikely he would pursue a similar tack with Bonds, because steroid use was so widespread and any action against one player would raise questions over where to draw the line with others.

For a sport that holds its records sacred, it is no simple matter to come to grips with one's feelings about Bonds and his steroid-tainted contemporaries, as they eclipse the marks set by the game's heroes of previous generations.

The single-season home run record was once as sacred as Aaron's career mark. For more than 70 years, it was held by only two players -- Ruth and Maris -- until Mark McGwire pushed the record to 70 in 1998, and Bonds hit 73 in 2001. In all, Maris's mark of 61 was bettered a total of six times between 1998 and 2001 by McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds -- all of whom have been linked to the steroid scandal.

"It's an unsettling thing," said Dale Petroskey, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "I'll tell you something a Hall of Famer said to [Selig] a couple of years ago. It was at a dinner the night of the induction ceremony, and when it was over the commissioner stood up and talked about state of game, and took questions from the Hall of Famers.

"And one Hall of Famer said: 'Mr. Commissioner, they're making it look easy. And it wasn't that easy. They're cheapening everything we ever did.' I think Bud understood that."

However, among those who argue that Bonds's record should be considered wholly legitimate because there has never been definitive proof he used steroids is Cal Ripken, the former Baltimore Orioles star who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Tony Gwynn on July 29.

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