Barry and the Babe

We’re nearly there. One more long ball, and for just the second time in 86 years, Babe Ruth will move on the list of the all-time home run rankings. He took over the top spot in 1921 and didn’t relinquish it until 1974; since then, he’s been at No. 2. Two weeks from today marks the 71st anniversary of the Babe’s final home run, one of three he hit in a marvelous afternoon at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.

If Barry Bonds is going to do it — and it certainly seems inevitable at this point — maybe he can wait two weeks and do it on the anniversary of Ruth’s own 714th blast. Giants manager Felipe Alou said that Bonds will play every game of this homestand, which runs through Sunday, to give him a chance to hit one or two home runs at home. The Giants then head to Houston for three games, without a day off, which means Bonds will likely sit. They then have three games at Oakland — where Bonds can DH all three games, if necessary — before returning home for six games spanning Memorial Day weekend that include the May 25 anniversary of Ruth’s last three home runs.

This whole controversy over Bonds is a shame, as many have written already (and I’ve loved all of Tom Verducci’s stuff on the subject, particularly his appropriately terse responses to some inane mailbag questions this week), because we should be enjoying this, celebrating it, bringing up Babe and looking at this in the context of one slugger vs. another, with 70 years between them. The debate should be about which one was the greater hitter — and perhaps the greatest hitter — of all-time, not which one did more with his own ability vs. which one had more artificial help.

I find it hard to believe anyone can look at Bonds’ career — his statistics, his baseball cards, his choice of friends and trainers — and not think that the evidence is overwhelming. Everyone still wants him caught red-handed with the smoking gun: a positive drug test. That’s being a little naive. Bonds, of course, admitted to using steroids when he testified before the grand jury; he just claimed he thought what he was being given were natural products rather than artifically produced enhancers.

Much as Ruth never got what he wanted at the end of his career — a chance to manage — Bonds won’t get what he wants, which is to be considered the greatest player ever, someone who is cheered at each stop around the National League when he makes his farewell tour. Mark McGwire left the game a beloved slugger, but if he were still playing today, he’d be under the same suspicion and the same scrutiny. Bonds will get a warm send-off in San Francisco in his final at-bat, but if he wants that to be his last on-field memory as a player, he’ll have to make sure his final game comes at AT&T Park.

Just how much more can he take? Clearly, the scrutiny and pressure is affecting him. He hides from the media, never moving faster than after a game, when he showers and dresses and leaves the clubhouse before the media arrives. He reluctantly answers questions after games in which he hits a home run; then he refuses to sign the ball that became his 713th career homer when a fan from Philadelphia asks, as Verducci reported. The fact that this 25-year-old soldier might soon be deployed to Iraq might prompt some players to take the guy to dinner after the game, or fly him out to San Francisco for a game. The most Barry can do is pose for a photo with the guy.

What happens when Bonds gets 714 and 715 in the next week or so? This is a guy who looks horrible on the field, like the boss trying to squeeze in a few innings in the company softball game, just to appear young and virile to his employees. He aches with every step and leaves games early, when even a five-run lead is big enough to take him out after he bats in the seventh inning. He’ll play more on this homestand — including this afternoon, after a night game yesterday — as Alou tries to give him the cocoon of the hometown fans for the backdrop of his historic homer, but what will that mean for the trip to Houston and Oakland? It’s been protocol for Bonds to sit out a day game after a night game, but on Monday he sat out a night game after a night game, presumably because his knee did not respond well to an overnight cross-country flight home after Sunday night’s game in Philadelphia.

When does it all become too much for him? I actually wondered this week if he might hang it up just days after he hits No. 715, if he’s finally had enough. His agent came out this week and said he expects Bonds to play somewhere in 2007, but how realistic is that? If he finishes this season with 725 home runs, mimicking the number on his uniform, might he call it a career at that nice, round number? That would mean a total of 17 home runs this season, just barely half of the 30 he would need in 2007 to tie Aaron. He hasn’t had a multiple-home run game since Aug. 29, 2004, a span of 72 games in which he’s played.

If this is Bonds’ final year, that gives us five more years to ponder and debate, ruminate and reconsider, because then all of this will come up again as he’s placed on the Hall of Fame ballot. We’ll get the first inkling of an indication as to how that might play out in January, when the Hall of Fame announces the Class of 2007 — for which Mark McGwire is eligible for the first time.

Bonds has had a Hall of Fame career. The only question is how good was he on his own?

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