Good morning and welcome to Summit Up, the world’s only column confused by all the recent news about famous people and their drug use.
Professional athletes really mystify us. We can’t help thinking about how times have changed since the 1970s, when Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron was pursuing Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record.
The Babe was, and still is (see the photo on this page), a superhuman figure in the folklore of baseball. Many baseball historians credit the larger-than-life Yankees star with single-handedly “saving baseball.” Americans like to believe their sports are untainted by corruption and the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919 threatened to destroy public trust in the game. Even though the White Sox players who threw the World Series that year were banned from baseball, their action tainted the whole game in the eyes of fans.
Babe Ruth came to the rescue. As soon as the official ball started to have some pop, he captured the imagination of millions with his powerful bat and flamboyant personality. His lifetime record of 714 home runs seemed unsurpassable.
And then came mild-mannered Hank Aaron. An African-American who played several of his last few years in the South, Aaron, in the tradition of Rodney Dangerfield, just “couldn’t get no respect.” He was a steady, non-glitzy performer, playing in the era of media darlings like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. When the public started to realize his career home run number was approaching 714, a lot of people weren’t very happy.
Jackie Robinson had integrated the game in 1947, but as late as 1974 some fans believed in the superiority of white players. Aaron received more than 3,000 letters a day during his run up to the Babe’s sacred record, and most of them were hate-filled. Many included death threats. No one suspected steroid abuse, they just didn’t like the color of his skin.
Young fans today are unlikely to appreciate the significance of that night in April 1974, when Aaron hit home run 715. His mother ran out of the stands as he rounded the bases because she thought he’d been shot. The local newspaper had an obituary for him written ” just in case.
Aaron played for two more years and finished with the as-yet-unsurpassed total of 755 dingers. Although many people still think of the Babe as the greatest player ever, no asterisk detracts from Aaron’s achievement in the record books. He may not have wowed the crowd with his personality, but his bat spoke for itself.
Aaron’s record has stood for 30 years without questions about its validity, but the current challenger in the career home run sweepstakes poses a pretty nasty problem for the game. With a career home run total of 712 as of May 5, Barry Bonds is poised to overtake the Babe on the lifetime list. For several years, we’ve worried about this possibility. Last year, we were relieved when the San Francisco slugger sat out most of the year on the disabled list. He’s back this year, though, and barring some sort of divine intervention, he’ll pass Ruth very soon.
Why do we care? In 1998, baseball fans were mesmerized by Mark McGwire’s pursuit of the 37-year-old single season home run record. No one booed him. He was a hero. He looked more muscular that year than he had before, but maybe he was just spending more time in the weight room, we thought. McGwire eventually admitted to using Andro, a then-legal muscle building drug, and refused to answer questions about steroid use in front of a congressional committee.
The incredible acceleration of Bond’s career, though, once he moved to San Francisco in 1993, has always seemed a little fishy. In his first eight years in the major leagues, Bonds averaged 25 homers a year. In his next 12 years, all with San Francisco, his yearly average skyrocketed to 43. Duh! We may not be trained statisticians, but we can see a pattern here.
Unfortunately, even if frequent drug testing ensures that Bonds will never use a performance enhancing drug from this day forward, the damage is done. So far this year he’s hitting .237 with four home runs. But he only needs three more to pass the Babe.
The game of baseball can tolerate lots of scandal: Pete Rose gambling on the game, Yankee Fritz Peterson wife-swapping with his teammate, Red Sox pitchers Bill Lee and Ferguson Jenkins using LSD to enhance their experiences on the mound, moral majority players like Steve Garvey fathering extra-curricular children and the entire 1986 New York Mets team snorting millions of dollars worth of cocaine.
America’s pastime can handle all that. But letting the Babe’s legacy be overshadowed by a player who was smart and unprincipled enough to make a mockery of the game’s metaphorical “playing field,” that’s a blow that may change the game forever.
It’s Sunday folks, and we’re propped in front of the TV, worshipping at the altar of baseball.
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