Fans punctuate debate over Bonds and asterisk

They say steroid cloud puts Giant's homer chase in strange light

Baseball

May 07, 2006|By JOE BURRIS | JOE BURRIS,SUN REPORTER

Should Barry Bonds surpass Babe Ruth for second place on baseball's list of all-time home run leaders - he is two short of tying him - his feat will be etched in baseball record books just like any other accomplishment. The statistics will carry no asterisks, no references to the steroid allegations that have haunted the San Francisco Giants' slugger in recent years.

But there will also be no end to the speculation over whether Bonds' numbers are as legitimate as those of the greats before him.

"I would say that the impact of the numbers will never be the same," said Marty Eichler of Abingdon, among the baseball fans interviewed at random last week about the prospect of Bonds' surpassing Ruth in homers. "We don't know if they were achieved naturally or if they were chemically helped."

That's a question that has haunted Bonds and Major League Baseball since well before the much-publicized book Game of Shadows (Gotham, 2006). The book alleges extensive steroid and growth hormone use by Bonds, a seven-time Most Valuable Player.

The issue has taken away from what should have been the most compelling story of the early baseball season, a chase that could have drawn as much excitement as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's 1998 race to topple Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61.

Instead, the steroid controversy that surrounds Bonds is amplified now that he's closing in on the Baltimore-born Ruth - a much-loved figure in the game's history.

Chants of "Barry's a cheater" greeted Bonds when he emerged from the visitors' dugout for batting practice in Philadelphia, where the Giants are playing the Phillies this weekend.

As Bonds walked to left field for the bottom of the first, fans unfurled a banner that read: "Ruth did it on hot dogs & beer."

As Bonds inches closer to Ruth and Hank Aaron (Bonds has 712 home runs, while Ruth finished with 714 and Aaron owns the all-time mark with 755), fans and at least one player are dismissing the San Francisco slugger's accomplishments.

Last week, Phillies pitcher Cory Lidle told the Philadelphia Daily News: "What he could have done without performance-enhancing drugs. ... Maybe it's 550 home runs. It definitely wouldn't have been anything close to 700."

More than any other game, baseball is defined by its numbers. They are etched in the minds of baseball fans.

Few die-hard football fans can tell you Emmitt Smith's all-time NFL rushing yardage record (18,355 yards) or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time NBA scoring record (38,387 points).

But serious baseball fans know that Joe DiMaggio's consecutive-games hitting streak ended at 56, that 2,131 stands for Cal Ripken's surpassing Lou Gehrig in consecutive games played.

And that Maris surpassed Ruth as the single-season home run leader with 61 - a mark many fans believe should have included an asterisk, since Maris' feat came on the final day of a 162-game season, whereas Ruth set his mark in a 154-game season.

But Maris' mark never carried an actual asterisk. Nor would Bonds' statistic should he pass Ruth and then all-time leader Aaron.

"There aren't any asterisks in [baseball] record books. That's one of those urban myths," said Lyle Spatz, chairman of the records committee for the Society for American Baseball Research, a group of baseball enthusiasts who research and keep statistical track of the game's past and present.

"As chairman of the records committee, it's not my job to be a moralist," he said.

Tom Donohoe, a fan who lives in Catonsville, argues that as long as Bonds is allowed to play, you can't argue the legitimacy of his statistics.

"If there was going to be an issue where it became illegal [for Bonds to play], then he shouldn't be in the game," Donohoe said. "As long as he's in the game, then they're home runs that count."

Other fans, though, will be placing that asterisk, at least in their own minds.

"If they allowed [Bonds' mark] into the books, there would have to be an asterisk by [Bonds'] name that explained the steroid problem," said Joanne Austin of Longmont, Colo., who was visiting the Baltimore area.

Even without the steroid scandal, baseball fans have long argued over the value of comparing numbers from one era to those of a vastly different one.

That is the beauty of baseball, said Alan Schwarz, author of The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics (St. Martin's Press 2004).

"Baseball lends itself to numbers," Schwarz said, "and the accomplishment of baseball players can be captured in numbers more than any other sport."

Former Orioles pitcher Dennis Martinez said it's tough to compare numbers of players from different times in the sport's history.

"You have people who say that Aaron and Ruth hit all those home runs because back then pitchers didn't throw breaking balls or curveballs," he said from his home in Florida.

"Now with Bonds, they're talking about steroids. You can never please people."

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