Still Looming Large

In an era of steroid-tainted stars, Babe Ruth's place in history is assured.

Baseball

December 07, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

As executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, Michael Gibbons took it upon himself to defend the Bambino last year when Barry Bonds spoke about wiping out Ruth's home run records.

But Gibbons expressed support for Bonds and Jason Giambi yesterday, saying the recent steroid revelations involving those two sluggers had little bearing on Ruth's legacy.

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that both players had admitted using steroids in grand jury testimony in the federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative. Giambi said he knew he was taking steroids from BALCO, and Bonds said he thought he was taking flaxseed oil and a rubbing cream for arthritis.

"Looking at this in the historical context," Gibbons said, "in all organized sports, as long as there's been competition, people have always looked for a competitive edge. In Ruth's day, players did things to try and find an edge. With Barry and Giambi, it's just a continuation of an effort to try and be the best.

"Yeah, it's disappointing, but I don't think Bonds and Giambi are bad guys at all."

Gibbons' comments came two days after Hank Aaron spoke more critically of Bonds in comments to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. With 703 career home runs, Bonds ranks third on the all-time list - 11 behind Ruth and 52 behind Aaron.

After repeatedly supporting Bonds as he climbed the all-time chart, Aaron told the newspaper: "Drugs won't help you hit the ball. But can they make you recuperate consistently enough to hit the kind of home runs that these guys are hitting? ... Let me say this: Any way you look at it, it's wrong."

Gibbons took a strong stance against Bonds last year, when the San Francisco Giants slugger spoke about climbing the home run chart at the All-Star Game in Chicago.

Bonds said the most important milestone for him would be passing his godfather, Willie Mays, with 660 home runs. Beyond that, Bonds said, he wanted to pass Ruth's 714 more than Aaron's 755.

Asked why Ruth's mark was more important to him than Aaron's, Bonds said: "Because, as a left-handed hitter I wiped him out. And in the baseball world Babe Ruth is everything, right? I got his slugging percentage, and I'll take his home runs and that's it. Don't talk about him no more."

In a letter to the editor, published in The Sun and later picked up nationally, Gibbons wrote, "To suggest that those feats are somehow capable of `wiping out' Ruth illustrates a complete disregard for the history and tradition of our national game, and its greatest player and star."

Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, setting the single-season record. Ruth hit 60 in 1927, and that record stood until Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961. Mark McGwire shattered that mark with 70 in 1998, but he did so while taking androstenedione, a muscle-building supplement that has since been banned by the federal government.

"I think Ruth is the most celebrated player of all time," Gibbons said. "Whether it's Maris or Aaron, when any of them pass the Babe in the record books, it's just another reference to the guy who set the standard.

"I don't think our guy is in jeopardy of being eclipsed. Babe lives on. He's certainly an example of a guy who was not a perfect human being and who didn't always make good choices."

Ruth's drinking and carousing have been well-documented, but he still remains an American icon. To date, there have never been inferences that he cheated in baseball.

But Gibbons also noted how times change. Beyond celebrating Ruth's Baltimore roots, the museum also chronicles the history of the Orioles and Baltimore Colts. Gibbons noted how in the 1890s, the Baltimore Orioles built a National League dynasty with players notorious for stretching the rules.

They sharpened their spikes to intimidate opposing players and groomed their field with clay around home plate - instead of dirt - to help use their infamous "Baltimore chop." With a downward swing, they would bounce the ball near the plate and over the infielders' heads for a base hit.

"The game is all about competition," Gibbons said. "Maybe today's guys have made an unfortunate choice doing what they're doing, but it's not surprising that some portion of the athletic community does that."

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