NBC Sports – August 8, 2007 – Outside of San Francisco, where Barry Bonds enjoyed the home-field advantage of unconditional love, his pursuit and capture of one of sportsâ€™ most hallowed records was a mostly joyless affair.
The long ascent to No. 756 was awkward, and sometimes heartbreaking. Away from his kingdom of AT&T Park, Bonds was serenaded by full choirs of boos. Grown men taunted him with giant foam asterisks. Little children held up signs that said, â€œCheater.â€?
So it was tempting to contrast Bonds, who falls between plaque and auto exhaust on the likability scale, with the greats of the game â€” the outsized personality of the cigar-chomping Babe Ruth, the steady, quiet excellence of Joe DiMaggio, the determination of Jackie Robinson.
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It may be that the heroes we locate in sports are not what they used to be.
Or maybe we arenâ€™t.
â€œWe have a very different expectation of our heroes than we used to,â€? says John Thorn.
â€œThey have to somehow tickle us in the short term as well as provide sustenance for the long,â€? says Thorn, a sports historian who was senior creative consultant for Ken Burnsâ€™ PBS â€œBaseballâ€? documentary. â€œThey have to be clever. They have to do things on the field that amuse. Itâ€™s not enough to hit 756 home runs. We need to be entertained.â€?
Instead, weâ€™ve been disoriented: It was possible one recent morning to turn on one of the sports channels and see highlights of Bonds at bat, bathed in popping flash bulbs, and also see the on-screen headline, â€œBALCO chemist says Bonds used steroids.â€?
Bonds, of course, has denied that he took knowingly performance-enhancing drugs. But the juxtaposition of heroic highlights and allegations of deceitful lowlights was consistently jarring.
The two previous home run records that Bonds surpassed on his way to 756 were attached to Ruth, arguably the best-known American sports figure of all time, and Hank Aaron, who was resanctified, including a Sports Illustrated cover, as Bonds closed in.
Each of the three men faced media attention, and thus fan scrutiny, that expanded by orders of magnitude. Ruth dealt with the New York papers. Aaron dealt with a media horde that included a traveling pack of television cameras.
But Bonds is a creature â€” an unwilling creature at that â€” of something else entirely, an era of blogs and reality television (including his own series, for a time) and a dozen airings of â€œSportsCenterâ€? every day.
When Aaron eclipsed Ruthâ€™s mark with his 715th home run in 1974, John F. Murray was just a boy, holding a tape recorder up to his television. He can still recite Curt Gowdyâ€™s call on NBC.
â€œWe didnâ€™t have video games or computers,â€? says Murray, now a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla. â€œWe werenâ€™t distracted by 200 channels. I think individuals need someone, some kind of role model to look up to. Itâ€™s just a more complex world.â€?
Then again, baseball is more popular than ever: More than 76 million fans attended games at its 30 major-league parks last year, beating by 1 million the previous record, set just a year earlier.
Perhaps more to the point, the line once observed by the press â€” that personal lives were mostly off limits, that reportage was limited to on-field performance and the occasional visit to hospital-bound child, has been obliterated.
â€œThe heroes of past years were not scrutinized at all personally,â€? said author W.P. Kinsella, whose novel â€œShoeless Joeâ€? became the movie â€œField of Dreams.â€?
Kinsella knows a thing or two about baseball and heroes. Take Ruth.
â€œHe was drunk half the time,â€? he said. â€œHe was a good-hearted, tough guy, but he probably would have been run out of the game today.â€?
Kinsella does draw a line between the personal flaws of athletes and the suspicion of steroid use that hovers over Bonds, whom the author calls a â€œnarcissistic jerkâ€? who â€œshouldnâ€™t even be allowed to park cars at the Hall of Fame.â€?
But his point applies to so many of the baseball players we hold up today as exemplars of some golden age. Ruth lived hard. Mickey Mantle was a raging alcoholic. Ty Cobb is almost celebrated now, in a tortured-soul way, for being surly.
And in â€œThe Heroâ€™s Life,â€? his 2000 biography of DiMaggio, Richard Ben Cramer portrayed a man who was paranoid, sensitive, insecure and generally difficult.
Aaron, who dealt with a racist swell of antipathy that included death threats, had the support of about three-fourths of the fans in the month before he beat Ruthâ€™s mark of 714, according to a poll taken at the time.
But a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found fans about equally split between rooting for Bonds to break Aaronâ€™s record and rooting against him. Fully one-fifth â€” startlingly high among self-identified active fans of the game â€” just didnâ€™t care.
Thorn says he believes the steroid rumors swirling around Bonds are no more than a cover for â€œmoralistsâ€? looking to savage him. The playing field has always been unlevel, he says â€” by segregation or amphetamines or game-fixing or who knows what else.
He says he has a â€œstrange affectionâ€? for Bonds because he has decided not to chase what he can never have â€” the admiration of the fans, on the fansâ€™ terms, by the fansâ€™ script.
Anyway, the historian wonders, isnâ€™t Bonds only giving us what we have a right to expect â€” sustained excellence on the diamond â€” as well as what we always believed we wanted â€” prodigious home runs?
He recalls Charles Barkleyâ€™s infamous ad for Nike: â€œI am not a role model.â€?
Of course, Barkley was viciously attacked, not least by the fans, for the suggestion. And a survey of sports columns from around the country from the past month or so shows they are overwhelmingly against Bonds.
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It may be that writers and fans are bitter because they felt burned by the home run race of 1998, during which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased after Roger Marisâ€™ single-season mark of 61 home runs. McGwire hit 70. (Bonds hit 73 three years later.)
At the time McGwire and Sosa were held up as paragons of dignity and as saviors of baseball itself, left in critical condition by a 1994 players strike.
â€œWhere have all the heroes gone?â€? West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd demanded to know, speaking on the Senate floor in the depths of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
The answer, he said, was on the baseball diamond, in the persons of McGwire and Sosa.
Then McGwire and Sosa gave embarrassing, evasive performances before a congressional committee investigating steroid use in 2005. Sosa is still playing; McGwire failed by a long shot in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility.
It has been all downhill since.
Just in the past few weeks, a betting scandal shook the NBA to its foundations. One of the NFLâ€™s star quarterbacks faced ghastly dogfighting charges. Doping scandals abounded on the Tour de France.
And Barry Bonds swung for the fences with heroic forearms and ran the bases with clay feet.
Maybe our sports heroes are not what they used to be. Or maybe what they used to be was only an illusion, a dream in soft focus. Vivid and real to us, just not true.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.