August 14, 2007
On Tuesday, August 7, at 8:51 pm (PST) a collective yawn rippled across the American continent, originating in San Francisco and sweeping through to New York City like a continent-wide version of "The Wave." So intense was the ambivalence to Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron on the career Home Run leaders list it generated weather patterns resulting in the first ever tornado reported in Brooklyn, NY the next morning. Of course, it could also be the tornado was an omen of the displeasure felt by the Great Bambino himself, given that Babe Ruth played 15 years of his career for the New York Yankees and is buried just north of New York City J.
Baseball milestones are hard to come by. Babe Ruth's Home Run record stood for 39 years. When Barry Bonds stepped to the plate on that fateful Tuesday night in San Francisco, Hank Aaron's record had stood for 33 years. Given the significance and the rarity of it all you would think this nation would be abuzz. It wasn't and it isn't.
There is more to the ambivalence about Bonds than just the steroid scandal, but steroid questions certainly are a contributing factor. The steroid cloud has followed Bonds on every road trip this year, only dissipating in the friendly confines of AT&T Park, the Giants' home field. I recently asked the great baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Detroit Tigers for more than 30 years, if he felt the steroid questions surrounding Bonds diminished in any way his accomplishment. He told me,
Well, I think it sullies the record somewhat, to some extent. But on the other hand I feel like he has, if he sets the record he sets it and should be officially in the record book. Baseball has always been a great survivor to all the bad things that people do to it, and I think eventually baseball fans will look back on the 1990's as a historical period in the game where people took drugs and used steroids and certain guys hit more home runs after they bulked up. But right now everything's so fuzzy about the evidence that it's hard to make any kind of a decision or discernment about the situation. I think we've all really got to sit back and wait until it's sorted out and we find out what really happened before we make a decision. But in general my answer would be, I think the record should stand. He's a great player, there's no question about that. He's just one of several that, at the moment, seem to be involved in this situation.
When Hank Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth in the Summer of '73 and the Spring of '74 this country was on the edge of its seat in anticipation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was just ten years old. Every child growing up in America was told that this country provided opportunity for anyone to accomplish anything. Given the realities of the struggle for civil rights in the 1950's and 1960's I doubt that most black children believed it. In the shadow of the accomplishment of real civil rights legislation, America watched as a black kid from Mobile, Alabama grew up to achieve the impossible. The "American Dream" came true right in front of our transfixed eyes.
Aaron's pursuit of Ruth ignited a nostalgia in the hearts of Americans, reminding us of a time when the game was truly a game, played in cornfields and cow pastures, for love not money. The pursuit gave us visions of the Golden Age of Baseball, recalling the names of not only Ruth, but Gehrig, Greenberg, and DiMaggio—heroes enshrined in the collective imaginations of little boys who took on the identity of their heroes on sandlots, playgrounds, and alley's across the country. For a few months in the summer of '73 and the spring of '74 this country was given a glimpse of baseball as it was meant to be.
But Hammerin' Hank surpassing the Babe marked a turning point in the game of baseball. Something in the game began to change with the crack of his bat on that cool April evening in Atlanta. While it is said that Babe Ruth died on August 16, 1948, he really lived, at least in our imaginations, until April 8, 1974. That night the Golden Age of Baseball ended and a new era began. A new generation of baseball heroes have since emerged, some of whom can't fill the shoes of the ghosts who preceded them on the diamond.
Today, baseball no longer invokes images of pasture lands and innocence but rather corporate boardrooms, lucrative contracts, and multiple endorsements. Barry Bonds is the icon of this new era. Hank Aaron's pursuit of the Babe raised us up demonstrating that working hard and playing by the rules really does pay off. Barry Bonds' pursuit of Aaron brought us down, reminding us of the lesser angels of human nature: greed, avarice and self-aggrandizement, of doing whatever one has to do to claim the fame, even if you have to bend a few rules along the way. America is ambivalent about Bonds because Bonds left America behind in his pursuit of one of baseball's highest honors. We can only hope this nation will not have to wait three more decades for a real hero to restore the honor of the game by reclaiming a record now sullied by the selfish ambitions of Barry Bonds.
Paul Edwards is the host of “The Paul Edwards Program” and a pastor. His program is heard daily on WLQV in Detroit and on godandculture.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.