Hank Aaron's 33 year reign as the owner of the most glamorous and storied record in sports ended shortly before midnight on Tuesday as Barry Bonds launched a 3-2 Mike Bacsik pitch over the right field wall at AT&T Park. Bonds' record-breaking 756th career home run gave the San Francisco Giants a 5-4 fifth inning lead over the Washington Nationals. Fireworks went off and his hometown fans cheered as Bonds rounded the bases. When Bonds reached home plate he raised his arms to the sky in triumph and was greeted by his son Nikolai. Bonds' wife and other family members soon joined him on the field, along with Bonds' godfather, Willie Mays.
Neither Commissioner Bud Selig nor Aaron were present at the game, but a greeting from Aaron was played on the park's big Jumbotron screen. Aaron concluded his remarks by saying, "Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and I offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams." You have to give Aaron credit for taking the high road here; a cherished record has been taken from him by foul means but Aaron, the true home run king, issued a classy congratulations to Bonds. Meanwhile, Selig made sure that he was nowhere near the scene of the crime, sending emissaries to do his dirty work while he issued another one of his trademark tepid statements that congratulated Bonds while casting indirect aspersions on him at the same time; Selig did call up Bonds after the game to speak with him. The whole thing is a farce, "Kabuki theater" as ESPN's Tony Kornheiser called it. Selig needs to stand up and clean up the steroids mess that is in no small part his fault; meanwhile, unless or until he can do that, he should have been at this game and he should have congratulated Bonds in person.
After Aaron's taped remarks were played, Bonds took a microphone and thanked the crowd, his teammates, the Nationals and his family. He maintained his composure until he mentioned his deceased father Bobby, breaking down a bit as he said, "To my dad, thank you for everything." Bonds took the rest of the night off to savor the milestone moment, finishing 3-3, one triple shy of hitting for the cycle. The Nationals eventually won, 8-6.
There is no escaping the fact that this moment belongs just as much to Victor Conte's BALCO labs and Bud Selig's mismanagement as it does to Bonds. If you still don't believe that Bonds achieved this record in large part due to his use of performance-enhancing drugs, then you need to read this excerpt from Game of Shadows, the book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that documents, in great detail, when, how and why Bonds began cheating; in addition to the dramatic visual evidence of how Bonds' entire physique has changed, Fainaru-Wade and Williams point out that Bonds' overall statistical production--not just his home run totals--increased after he started using performance-enhancing drugs and at an age when every other slugger in baseball history saw his production decline. By the way, I am so sick of hearing people say that even if Bonds used steroids it doesn't matter because steroids were not against the rules in baseball at that time. The use of steroids without a valid prescription is against the law and has been for quite some time; Bonds and anyone else who has used them without a valid prescription broke the law and should be criminally prosecuted.
Bonds has been--and remains--a remarkable athlete but this record-breaking moment feels unlike any other previous ones, including Walter Payton passing Jim Brown on the NFL's career rushing list, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar breaking Wilt Chamberlain's NBA career scoring record and Pete Rose setting the all-time baseball record for career hits. Yes, there is joy, at least in some quarters, and there is no question that this is quite an accomplishment but there is also a feeling of emptiness in the pit of one's stomach--the same feeling one gets when watching old footage of Mark McGwire's titanic home runs from 1998, when he shattered Roger Maris' single-season home run record. At the time, McGwire was celebrated but now we understand that we were watching a fraudulent event. We have just watched an equally fraudulent event, one that will be looked back on as a disgrace and a stain on baseball's record books. I don't know how or when that understanding will be reached but it will happen. More evidence will be uncovered, more depositions will be taken; perhaps in 15 or 20 years Bonds will write a tell-all book like Pete Rose did. For now, Bonds remains as defiant as ever. In the post game press conference, someone asked him how he would respond to anyone who suggests that this record is "tainted." Bonds, eyes narrowing and facial muscles tightening, stated bluntly that the record is "not tainted"--just like Pete Rose maintained for a decade and a half, with equally steely-eyed conviction, that he never bet on baseball.