Home Run King? You Make The Call

By John Smallwood
Updated: August 7, 2007

SAN DIEGO — Now it is simply a case of personal opinion. The raw numbers cannot be disputed. Barry Bonds launched a 382-foot rocket into the San Diego night on Saturday to step into immortality.

More than a week after he pulled within one of Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list, Bonds finally joined Hammerin’ Hank by homering off Padres righthander Clay Hensley.

Both Aaron and Bonds have hit 755 home runs – more than any other players in major league history. Soon Bonds will hit another bomb and step one rung higher than Aaron. There will be no denying that.

But baseball’s all-time home-run king? Well, that will be a topic of discussion for a long time. And that’s the unfortunate aspect of this record. It shouldn’t be this way. The home-run record shouldn’t be stained by doubt. The numbers should be able to speak for themselves.

Just as there is no denying Bonds’ total, there is no denying the shady side of his accomplishments. The suspicions of Bonds having used performance-enhancing drugs don’t just go away because he now shares, and will soon own, the most hallowed record in American sports.

What that means and how it reflects on Bonds will be up to each individual to determine. There isn’t a wrong answer.

Each side will have equally strong cases for considering Bonds as either the legitimate home-run king or as an ultratalented player who took shortcuts to become an immortal.

I’ve made my opinion clear since it became inevitable that Bonds was going to pass Aaron: I think it’s bogus.

I believe that Bonds is guilty of having used “the cream,” “the clear,” and whatever other illegal substances that the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative provided for him.

I believe that during the 5-year period from 2000 through ’04, when Bonds smacked 258 home runs, including a single-season record 73 in 2001, he was on performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds turned 36 in 2000, an age when every other athlete in professional sports is already out of his or her prime or rapidly sliding out of it. Instead of declining, Bonds’ power numbers skyrocketed.

After averaging 37 home runs the previous five seasons, Bonds averaged 52 home runs during the period when his arms, feet, body and head swelled to Popeye-sized proportions.

That was an additional 75 home runs at ages when the power numbers of other sluggers decline. I believe that without the assistance of drugs, Bonds would still be well short of Aaron’s mark.

Bonds will have more home runs, but I still consider Henry Aaron the all-time home-run king, just as I consider Roger Maris, not Bonds or Mark McGwire, as the single-season home-run king.

That only matters to me. It has no official bearing on the record book. But statistics, like just about everything else, are subject to interpretation. There are certainly several ways to interpret Bonds’ home-run total and there are plenty of places to spread the blame.

During the mid-1990s, most of us turned a blind eye to the growing presence of performance-enhancing drugs.

Instead of questioning the dramatic increases in body sizes and power numbers of numerous players, baseball counted its money as fans flocked into stadiums to see the swollen supermen smack balls out.

Certainly Bonds wasn’t the only one juicing. In an ironic sidebar, Hensley was suspended for 15 games while pitching in the minors in 2005 for testing positive for performance-enhancers.

“I don’t think we’re here to discuss those matters,” Bonds said when asked about Hensley’s drug-related suspension. “I think we have a great [drug-testing] policy in baseball, and we should just leave it at that.”

Still, while Bonds has taken the brunt of the criticism as the poster child of the Steroid Era, the bulk of the blame lies at his feet.

Some have speculated that it was envy over the love that suspected juicers McGwire and Sammy Sosa received during their celebrated chase of Maris’ single-season home-run record in 1998 that motivated Bonds to decide that his God-given natural abilities, the ones that already had made him one of the greatest players of any generation, were not enough.

He made a conscious decision as a grown man to cheat, to unnaturally tip the scales in his favor. Any negatives coming his way are a result of his actions.

That other players were also juicing up is irrelevant because Bonds wasn’t chasing McGwire, Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro or any other slugger suspected of using performance-enhancers

Hank Aaron did not use steroids or any other illegal drugs; none of his 755 home runs was chemically aided. Aaron is the man Bonds is about to erase from the record book, just as McGwire tainted the record book by erasing Maris.

“We as baseball players and especially as African-American ballplayers have so much respect for Hank Aaron and all our other fellow African-American athletes who came before us,” Bonds said in the early hours of Sunday morning. “They have paved the road for what we are doing now.

“I don’t know what to say. It’s Hank Aaron. It’s Hank Aaron.”

My sentiments exactly.