Experts refer to baseball as a "game of numbers." Recently, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling won his 200th game and Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees collected his 2,000th hit. Impressive numbers, but another recent accomplishment dwarfs them all. Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit his 715th career home run to take second place on the all-time list. Unfortunately for Bonds, the moment was a controversial one.
A moment of pure joy, or it should have been, as the Giants' Barry Bonds passed Babe Ruth for second on the all-time Major League Baseball home run list. Even in his hometown of San Francisco, there were mixed feelings about Bonds' achievement.
"Everybody jumped out of their seats. You know what, the whole crowd went nuts!" said one fan.
"Bonds does not deserve to be in the record book and beat Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, who did it the right way," said another. “Right way” means without steroids.
Mel Antonen, a baseball writer for USA Today, said, "Steroids give athletes an unfair advantage. They're very unhealthy.” He said, “The government is very worried when baseball and football players take steroids to enhance performance; it sets a bad example."
Bonds is currently being investigated by the federal government for perjury, or lying to a grand jury about possible steroid use. News reports allege Bonds used steroids, but Bonds claims he never did so knowingly.
Hank Aaron is the all-time home run king with 755 homers. Aaron reportedly said he will not be in the ballpark if, and when, Bonds passes him.
The link between steroids and home run hitting baseball players accelerated after a player's strike in 1994, according to investigators. In 1998, St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire and Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa both broke the previous single-season home run record. Questions were raised about whether their achievements were tainted by drugs, but the two sluggers helped win back many fans.
The increase in ballpark attendance did not go unnoticed by baseball owners. Antonen said, "The owners were allowing it [steroid use] by looking the other way because they knew that's what fans wanted."
In 2004, employees of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, BALCO, were accused of distributing steroids to top athletes in several sports. Barry Bonds was among those implicated.
Last year, some major league players -- McGwire and Sosa among them -- testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on steroid use in baseball. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig also testified. Selig said, “I will suspend any player who tests positive for an illegal steroid."
Baseball now has much harsher penalties for steroid use, and the league has said it is investigating the Bonds case.
Pete Humm, owner of Pete's All Stars, a sports memorabilia store in Virginia, believes Bonds' personality also figures into the debate over his achievements. "He is not a fan's player,” Humm said. “He's not friendly with the media, he's not friendly with kids."
Antonen said that Bonds, “takes all second guessing personally. He takes the opinions of columnists personally when, in essence, they're just covering the game."
The doubts over Bonds and steroids have affected the value of Bonds-related memorabilia. Recently, experts estimated the value of Bonds' 715th home run ball to be $100 thousand. Without the steroid debate, Humm said it could have been as high as $1 million.
Babe Ruth hit 714 homers playing in the 1920s and ‘30s and helped make baseball a popular attraction. Bonds passed Ruth, but some fans want that number erased from baseball's record books.
The response may be more vehement as Bonds closes in on Hank Aaron's record.