Sport - Benjamin Markovits wants a record to stand

At 41, Barry Bonds is stretching towards a last great record. Most people want him to fail

Last week, for the second time in (that limited field of study known as) "baseball history", an African-American player knocked a ball out of a park and tied Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs.

Hank Aaron, when he passed the Babe in 1974, had to endure death threats, for there was still a minority of the white fan base that didn't want to see the greatest remaining record of its most famous player broken by an African American. When Aaron rounded the bases on number 715, a white fan leapt out of the stands - to congratulate him, as it happens. Aaron flinched.

Barry Bonds has 30 years more of integration behind him, and when he knocks out number 715 there will be nothing more dramatic than a scramble for the baseball; but his pursuit of the Babe's mark has hardly made him popular. The real worry, this time, is that he might overtake Aaron himself.

That scramble for baseballs isn't as innocent as it used to be. By tradition, fans can keep balls that land in the stands. Kids show up with their gloves just to be ready "to make a play" from their seats if - the stuff of dreams - a shot comes their way. The trouble today is that home-run balls can be worth a lot of money.

After the players' strike in 1994, Major League Baseball was desperate for a popularity infusion. A few years later it got lucky: there was a home-run chase. Babe Ruth's record for "dingers" in a season had been beaten by Roger Maris, who hit 61 in '61. That record lasted till 1998, when it was beaten not once, but twice: by Mark McGwire, who is white, and Sammy Sosa, who is black.

It was McGwire, in that battle, who came out on top. He finished with 70 (Sosa had 66) and each one of those record-breaking balls turned out to be worth a small fortune, as artefacts in that limited field of study known as baseball history. The scramble in the stands was now a scramble for millions of dollars, and you can imagine that the kids with gloves didn't often get the prize.

Only a few years later the whole shooting match began again. Barry Bonds, at the age of 37, chased down the home-run record and beat it again, finishing with 73, a dozen beyond the total hit by Maris in 1961. Bonds had always been a great baseball player, but for a spell he became something else entirely. Baseball is famously the sport of failure. Fans like to claim that getting a base-hit is the hardest "staple" act of any sport. Not getting out three times in ten at-bats is reckoned a good rate. In his heyday Bonds made it to base six times in the average ten. Nobody dared pitch to him. Teams simply let him walk on, in the belief that he was safer standing at first base than rounding it on a home-run trot. Now, at 41, he is stretching towards his last important record: Aaron's mark of 755 home runs. And almost nobody wants him to reach it.

The reason is rumours of steroids. All the great batters of the past ten years have been tainted by them. The records, it seems, have been falling not just to talent but to medical science. The free market of sports has played its part in integrating American life; Aaron's success is a product of it, and so is the scramble for record-breaking baseballs. Bonds, too, is seen as a symbol - of what science can do to talent if money is involved.

Should we care? Why shouldn't our athletes be the best that doctors can make them? The answer, from baseball's point of view, is that the League has always insisted that the game played now is the same game played in 1890. Aaron and Maris and Ruth, one could reasonably argue, were playing that game. The great sluggers of the 1990s may not have been. Now the League has decided it prefers the old to the new and has begun to test players for steroids. Bonds's home-run rate, in the meantime, has dried up, so there's a decent chance that Hank Aaron will keep his place in that limited field of study known as baseball history.

Hunter Davies is away

Next Article