Are we making too much of a fuss about the home run record that Barry Bonds is close to smashing? Surely there are more important things to dwell on — famines, diseases, wars and droughts?
For better or worse, however, the long ball is part of the American myth. It's right up there with cowboys, jazz and apple pie. And home run kings are practically the living embodiment of folk heroes like Pecos Bill, John Henry and Paul Bunyan. Anyone who can hit a fast ball over tall buildings — and do it more often than any other man alive — seems to deserve some special superman-type recognition.
Bonds is a special athlete, no doubt about it. With his natural abilities and the support of his major league baseball-playing father and his godfather, Willie Mays, he was groomed for success. He may be the greatest slugger of all time.
But Bonds seems to have missed something along the way — and this should be a lesson for parents who raise their children to be little athletic thoroughbreds. In the words of a wise coach: Baseball doesn't build character; it reveals character.
And baseball has revealed that Bonds' character is sadly deficient. We may not be able to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs on his hitting spree, but his silence on the subject and the shady company he kept speak volumes. We do know one thing — as a superman who should represent something special about America , he can't hold a candle to that of the home run sluggers who came before him.
When Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, was slugging away in the Roaring '20s, the home run seemed like the perfect expression of America as a rising world power — and Babe Ruth was the perfect embodiment of strength and vitality that Americans could happily identify with.
When Hank Aaron came along and topped Ruth's record in 1974, it seemed fitting that an African-American had achieved the highest honor in a game that only 30 years earlier had been closed to his race.
The Hammer, like the Babe, came from nowhere, overcame great odds, and along the way developed a generous spirit that was evident in how he reached out to younger players and fans. Aaron built a character that was strong enough to stand up to the demands of the game and the racial issues of the day.
Hank Aaron needed baseball as much as baseball needed Hank Aaron.
Barry Bonds needs Barry Bonds as much as Barry Bonds needs Barry Bonds.
When Bonds was slugging away , the home run became a symbol of the sneaky, self-absorbed American who will do anything to get ahead. He broke the single-season home run record held by the juiced Mark McGwire, but most fans are still waiting for proof of authenticity.
Maybe Bonds never got a chance to develop character. Maybe most professional athletes don't, and it's wrong of us to expect anything from them beyond their technical skills on the diamond.
But we expect more from our home run kings.
That's why, when Bonds finally hits 756, expect to see an instant devaluation of the achievement. Prepare to see Bonds defend himself as the Pretender King. Steel yourself for the Schism Years as people debate who deserves the throne — Bonds or Aaron. And prepare yourself. Somewhere in the realm a young woodsman is swinging his ax, preparing to march on the palace.
Let's just hope he's out there building character as well.