November 21, 2006

Barry Bonds Tests 756 and Free-Agency

Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career homerun next season providing that his body holds, Major League Baseball and George Mitchell do not suspend him, and a team finally signs him. Bonds has hit 734 and the San Francisco Chronicle has its Bonds-O-Meter counting down to 755 on its Giants homepage. He really is close. To my generation, born in the 1970s, and raised on a baseball in which Hank Aaron was a retired legend and 755 a distant unattainable record, (as Babe Ruth and 714 was to a previous generation), Bonds’ approach to 755 could be an exciting time for us and for Major League Baseball. But there is little Bonds-buzz this off-season for his record or for him, and one senses that most of us would just as soon like to see Bonds call it a career, hold a press conference, and retire into the Pacific sunset.

Performing like that of a very good but no longer amazing player in 2006, Bonds hit 26 homeruns and once again led the National League in walks. Neither All-Star superstar nor bench-player, and yet on the brink of career homerun 755, not only have the Giants, his team of 14 years and that of his late father, not rushed to resign him, but other clubs are not exactly beating a path to the foot of his overstuffed clubhouse armchair. It was rumored recently that the Texas Rangers were a suitor. It is rare that one hears a denial of interest stronger or sharper than that of the Rangers’ owner Tom Hicks in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "You can be adamant in saying that Barry Bonds won't be signing with the Texas Rangers," Wow, are you absolutely sure about that Tom? On November 16, the Padres denied they had interest. As the national sports press reported that the A’s were interested, the San Francisco Chronicle was reporting on November 18 that the Athletics were in fact not interested, and were pursuing others to replace Frank Thomas at DH. What about the Giants? They are not saying anything much about Bonds, playing coy as they look at players like Carlos Lee to take Bonds’ place in the outfield and lineup.

This is how far Bonds has descended in stature and how little we value his career homerun achievement. Bonds may hit his 756th career homerun in 2007 to pass Hank Aaron on the all-time list and not one team is publicly displaying enthusiasm to have him on their team. Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 career homeruns. He had hit 40 homeruns in 1973 and would be 40 years old on Opening Day 1974. Aaron was really going to do it and American noticed and cared passionately.

Many cared so passionately about the significance of Babe Ruth’s record 714 career homerun record that through the end of the 1973 season, and during the 1973-1974 baseball off-season, they sent Aaron hate-mail cursing him, a man of color, for approaching one of the great records of the pre-Jackie Robinson baseball-era. This was a baseball record that resonated deeply beyond baseball and American professional sports into the American soul with all of our collective ideals and light, contradictions and ghosts. What this anger showed, as well as the parallel pride and joy that many took in Aaron’s approach, was how much gravitas we attached to numbers 714 and 715. This was a huge deal and we took the record very seriously.

Bonds? We reveal our feelings about Bonds and his approach to 755 with our sweeping indifference.

Who in baseball believes – truly – that Bonds’ homerun mark is an extraordinary generational achievement? Our indifference belies our conviction in the insignificance of Bonds’ approach to Aaron. In late October, AP-AOL Sports released a poll that reported that 48% of respondents hope that Bonds falls short of 755. Jeff Borris, Bonds’ agent and a man hoping to collect his percentage of his clients’ next contract, responded by saying, "It saddens me. I think true baseball fans who know and understand everything Barry has done to get to this point should be pulling for him. They should feel fortunate that they'll have the opportunity to see him break probably the most hallowed record in sports." One hopes Borris was able to keep a straight-face as he tugged at our heartstrings. It is bad news when an agent has to implore fans that we should feel fortunate.

But it is precisely because true baseball fans do know and understand everything Bonds has done to reach this point that we are not pulling for him. When we look at Bonds, we look at achievement-inflation, and like converting between 1957 and 2003 dollars, we know that an Aaron homerun is of greater value than a Bonds homerun.

The team that signs Bonds this year will receive the public relations that will accompany his march to 755. They say that any PR is good PR but do not tell that to the front-offices scampering to distance themselves from any rumors of Bonds coming to their club. As Bonds approaches 755, the questions and dialogue will grow louder about the past steroid use. Bonds will attract media attention and it will not be the honorific attention like that for Pete Rose as he approached 4,192 hits or as Cal Ripken moved in on Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. This will be prolonged public trial rather than national celebration. Which team wants Barry Bonds’ large armchair in their clubhouse? Who wants the shadows of steroid-use and denials? Who wants the ambivalence about how to mark number 756?

With his five-year contract expired, and his family friend Felipe Alou out as Giants’ manager, it is not clear that Bonds will return to San Francisco. Historical baseball rhythms bring homerun champions back to their first cities to close their careers. The Braves obliged Aaron and traded him to the Brewers in November 1974 so that Aaron could return to County Stadium in Milwaukee where he had begun his career with the Braves. Aaron would play two more seasons, finishing his career with the Brewers in 1976. Babe Ruth returned to Boston at age 40, to Braves Field, across the Boston University campus from Fenway Park where he had come up with the Red Sox in 1914. Willie Mays was traded back to New York City and played his last two seasons with the Mets, the team that carries the legacy of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Reggie Jackson went back to the Athletics and played his final season in 1987 with the organization with whom he had begun. While such poetry dictates that Bonds sign with Pittsburgh, Bonds will not be wearing black and gold next season, or the Pirates’ frightening new red alternate jersey. [Note to MLB Properties: It is not too late to recall this concept before Opening Day!].

But Aaron returned to Milwaukee the homerun king. Ruth had long been crowned the homerun champion when he suited up for the Braves. Mays was already a sure-Hall of Famer when he again donned a NY cap. Rose returned home to Cincinnati to manage and break the hit-mark. Bonds is in free-agent limbo before he has broken the record, lingering at 734, so close, and no one team is laying out a welcome mat and stitching up a number 25 jersey.

Recent steroid-colored homerun hitters both burn-out and fade-away. Rafael Palmeiro was caught midseason, turned on his teammates, and was instructed by the Orioles not to return to the club. Sammy Sosa faded with the Orioles in 2005 and turned down the offer of a minor league contract for 2006 with the Washington Nationals. Two weeks ago, Sosa expressed his desire to return to baseball and no team has stepped up showing strong interest. McGwire burned before Congress and the Baseball Writers Association of America will punish him this January when they choose not to elect him to the Hall of Fame.

This would be all so much easier for us if Bonds would call a press-conference at AT&T Park and gracefully retire. The Giants are beginning a new era with their recent hire, manager Bruce Bochy and would like to turn the page. The Giants could celebrate Bonds, close the Bonds-era, and enter 2007 fresh. The Giants are hosting the All-Star Game next July and Bonds would throw out the first ball and be the National League’s honorary captain. The Giants would look good, Bonds would look good, and MLB would be spared a 756-public relations balancing act.

But this will not happen. Bonds will not submit to our public unspoken desire that he retire. The question remains: Who will sign him? Which team will accept his armchair into their clubhouse next April?


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