More than a baseball record, it's part of our national fabric

OTHER VOICES

Commentary

August 06, 2007|By MARK PURDY | MARK PURDY,San Jose Mercury News

Soon, the most suspicious great feat in the history of American sports will be upon us. Within days, perhaps hours, Barry Bonds will hit his record 756th home run. He will swing. The ball will travel over an outfield wall.

And then we'll spend the rest of our lifetimes arguing about it.

We will do this because of the steroid stink surrounding Bonds, plus the assorted controversies and legal issues spawned by that stink. But there is something else, too. If Bonds were assaulting any other record, the stink would not matter so much - or maybe even at all.

Here's why: Above all other signposts in our organized games, major league baseball's career home run record is deemed to be the most hallowed record in American sports. There is almost a religious sheen attached to it.

As a practical matter, that makes no sense. Records are inanimate numbers. They do not affect our everyday existence. They can't feed us, physically hurt us or deliver us pizza.

But in our society, sports is a cultural touchstone. And there are certain elements of our games that, as Americans, we want to rely on as much as we rely on Social Security, or interstate rest stops, or cold soft drinks out of a vending machine on a hot day.

In this case, the reliable element is the nation's all-time home run leader. He needs to be an exceptional person, someone we can appreciate and respect. The garrulous Babe Ruth was that sort of person when he played in the first half of the 20th century. So was Hank Aaron, who had a more intense and thoughtful personality than Ruth, but was still someone you could admire and value.

Bonds? Get ready to debate. For this is important. Because this is baseball. Not another sport. Baseball. At the moment, pro football is easily America's most popular viewing choice. But no football record will ever be as cherished as this one, because football will never have what baseball has attached to it: your great-great-great-grandfather's eyeballs and opinions.

Here is what I mean: Baseball is our country's oldest professional team sport, by almost half a century. The NFL wasn't founded until 1920, and didn't become widely popular until after the 1958 championship game. The first home run in major league history was struck May 2, 1876, by Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings against the Cincinnati Red Legs.

And the cool part is, that home run could well have been witnessed by that aforementioned great-great-great-grandpa of yours. Odds are, if he grew up in America, he probably watched a baseball game in his hometown and followed the major leagues in some fashion. The same goes for your great-great-great-grandma. It they were alive today, you could discuss home runs and Bonds and they would understand what you mean. That couldn't happen with football, basketball, hockey, synchronized swimming or whatever.

This also explains why, to most sports fans, the second-most cherished American sports record is probably Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Ted Williams' .406 batting average in 1941 - the last time anyone has hit .400 - is right up there, too.

High above them all, however, stands the home run record. Which is the other half of the equation. Bobby Cox, the Atlanta Braves manager and as grizzled a guy as you'll find in baseball today, was talking about that recently in the visiting manager's office at AT&T Park.

"It's always been home runs that people pay attention to," Cox said. "They're easy to understand. The ball leaves the park. Nobody ever asks who leads the league in runs batted in, do they? It's always home runs. It's that way starting in Little League. Everybody grows up wanting to hit them. And too many of us couldn't."

Precisely. That figures into the hallowed nature of No. 756, too. From shared personal experience, all of us know one thing.

"It's just so hard to hit home runs," San Francisco Giants infielder Ray Durham said the other day. "I mean, in the major leagues, it's hard just to get hits. And it's even harder to get home runs. It's hard to hit them in batting practice, even."

Plus, we haven't even mentioned the romantic part about home runs. The legendary Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 home runs in the Japanese leagues, provided the best quote ever about the experience.

"There is nothing I know quite like meeting a ball exactly in the right spot," Oh wrote in his autobiography. "As the ball makes its high, long arc beyond the playing field, the diamond and the stands suddenly belong to one man. In that brief, brief time, there are no demands and complications for him. ... In this moment, he is free."

Right. Except this time. Perhaps that is the real rub. When Bonds hits his record home run, there still will be complications. Plenty of them. And we don't like that. We really don't like that. And many of us are not shy about saying so. Who says we should be shy? Bruce Catton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian, once called baseball "beyond question the greatest conversation piece ever invented in America."

In other words, as you watch No. 756 clear the outfield wall, be prepared to honor a tradition passed down from your ancestors. Get ready for some serious conversation about what has happened to our most cherished inanimate number.

Mark Purdy writes for the San Jose Mercury News.

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