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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 May 2006, 22:19 GMT 23:19 UK
Baseball, Bonds and the Babe
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

There's nothing more exciting in American sports than a home run: a wooden bat smashing into a hard white ball travelling faster than most cars ever will, sending it with a crack hundreds of feet up and away until it hurtles out of the ballpark entirely.

Barry Bonds hits home run number 713
Barry Bonds is only the third man ever to hit more than 700 homers
Hitting a home run is a feat so difficult that a player who does it 30 times in a 160-plus-game season is regarded as excellent. One who can do it 40 times a year is outstanding.

Barry Bonds has just done it for the 714th time in his 21-year career.

The San Francisco Giants superstar's latest home run, against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday, gives him the same career total as Babe Ruth, an icon whose name is synonymous with baseball greatness.

Only one man in history has hit more - Hank Aaron, whose record of 755 may be within Bonds' grasp before this season ends in October.

Bonds' feat has transfixed the United States - but not in a way that would necessarily please him.

On the opening day of the season, a baseball fan hurled a syringe onto the field as Bonds passed.

Recently a group of fans was seen holding up a sign saying "The Babe did it on beer and hot dogs".

Both are references to the suspicion that Bonds has used illegal steroids to boost his performance.

He has always denied using banned drugs, and there is no public evidence he has done.

'Saviour'

Even without the rumours of wrongdoing, Barry Bonds may have faced hostility for overtaking Babe Ruth's home run total.

No-one else holds a comparable place in sports legend, according to Roger Kahn, a veteran sportswriter and author of the baseball classic The Boys of Summer.

Babe Ruth at bat
The legend of Babe Ruth continues to dominate baseball
When Ruth burst onto the scene, the US was reeling from World War I - and the greatest scandal ever to engulf American sport, Kahn says.

Bribed by gamblers, the Chicago White Sox intentionally lost the 1919 World Series.

"This touched something in the American fibre beyond the game of baseball, "Kahn says, noting it is mentioned in the F Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby.

"Suddenly the sport which had produced heroes was producing some villainous characters. It was almost beyond belief."

Babe Ruth - a hard drinker, a carouser, a Rabelaisian figure known as the Bambino and the Sultan of Swat - was critical to saving the game, Kahn explains.

"In 1920 he hit 54 home runs. For comparison, the number-two home run hitter hit 19. Ruth was in a class by himself."

His importance extended well beyond the baseball field - famously, he earned more money than the president of the United States at a time when that was unheard of for an athlete.

When questioned about taking home more money than the president in the year the Great Depression struck, Ruth came up with a reply that has passed into legend: "I had a better year than he did."

'Most important record'

Ruth's records for the most home runs in a single season and in a career stood unchallenged for more than a generation after he retired in 1935.

Hank Aaron - who holds the record for the most home runs of all time - in 1965
Hank Aaron is still the man to beat
It wasn't until 1961 that Roger Maris topped Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a year - and the commissioner of baseball was so loyal to Ruth that he ordered an asterisk placed next to Maris's name in the record books to indicate Maris had done so in a longer season than Ruth had played.

Not until 1974 did Aaron top Ruth's 714 career homers.

"There's no American sports record like it," says Lance Williams, a reporter for Bonds' hometown San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.

"American football fans can't tell you the record for touchdown passes, but any fan with just a moderate interest can tell you Henry Aaron passed Babe Ruth's record.

"Some people would say the home run record is the most important record in American sports."

Different era

Many fans argue it is meaningless to compare the accomplishments of players today with those of a man who died in 1948 - or even one who retired 30 years ago, as Aaron did.

Everything from travel to training is different now.

But for an enthusiast, that is merely part of the fun, Williams says.

"A lot of the enjoyment is in comparing the statistics of the stars of today with the stars of the past.

"The arguments about how the eras match up is part of the fun too. Fans understand that the records don't really match up."

Greg Anderson, the Barry Bonds trainer found guilty of distributing steroids
Bonds' trainer was sentenced to three months in prison
Williams is more firmly convinced than most that it is not fair to compare Barry Bonds with those who went before.

He is the co-author of Game of Shadows, a book that claims - despite the star's denials - Bonds has systematically used illegal steroids since 1998.

Bonds' trainer Greg Anderson has been convicted of steroid distribution, and Balco, a firm he was associated with, was raided by anti-doping agents in 2003.

Its founder, Victor Conte, was imprisoned for supplying athletes with illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Major League Baseball, the sport's governing body, is conducting an investigation into alleged steroid abuse by players associated with Balco.

Steroids can help people build muscle and recover quickly from injuries.

Major League Baseball has been criticised for not having as unambiguous anti-doping policy as, for example, the Olympics.

Rough ride

Barry Bonds has always denied knowingly using banned substances.

He is under government investigation on suspicion of lying to investigators in the Balco case.

A fan holds up a sign saying Bonds cheated baseball
Many fans have already made up their minds about the charges
Many American baseball fans, though, are not waiting for the results of the various probes.

"Fans are now absolutely convinced that Bonds is on the march because of using banned steroids," San Francisco sportswriter Williams says.

"Even fans in laid-back towns like San Diego are very rough on him."

At least one anti-Bonds protester simply held up a sign with an asterisk when the Giants came to town.

Williams doubts that Major League Baseball will place an asterisk next to Bonds' records no matter what the investigations conclude.

But, he says, "I think baseball will regard the players of the steroid era differently from the natural era."

'Great gift'

Roger Kahn has been covering baseball for more than 50 years and he, too, guesses that no asterisk will accompany Bonds into the record books.

"Every home run Bonds hit, he hit. You can muscle up with steroids and hit the ball farther, but a steroid doesn't help you get a bat on a 95mph (150km/h) fastball or hit a curve ball.

"It's hand-eye co-ordination. Bonds gets his bat on the ball and that's his great gift."

Kahn says baseball cannot turn back the clock on the steroid era, but would like to see the sport as a whole clamp down on drugs.

"What's done is done. You play another game tomorrow.

"Would you arbitrarily eliminate the records of the maybe 40 players who have used steroids? What baseball needs is an effective programme so steroid use, if it is going on as widely as some suppose, doesn't happen again."


SEE ALSO:
Baseball star 'abused steroids'
08 Mar 06 |  Americas
Balco boss begins jail sentence
18 Oct 05 |  Athletics
Coach pleads guilty in Balco case
30 Jul 05 |  Athletics
Balco founder Conte pleads guilty
15 Jul 05 |  Athletics
Aaron slams Bonds over steroids
07 Dec 04 |  US Sport


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