Sunday, August 05, 2007

Two Players, but Only One True King

By SELENA ROBERTS
Sports of The Times
August 5, 2007

An identity theft has just unfolded. In the crushing instant when Barry Bonds matched Hank Aaron’s legend in the second inning last night at Petco Park in San Diego, there were suddenly two Home Run Kings in baseball lore: one a vainglorious impostor, the other an authentic icon.

With the two standing side by side, Bonds is the sultan in the costume jewelry crown, his 755 home runs written into the books with the penmanship of a fabulist.

His distorted immortality is lab made. Aaron was self-made. He was a modest player drawn from reality, with everyman features, extraordinary talent and a social conscience.

So it seems like simple math to vilify Bonds and exalt Aaron in a split screen by the numbers, with one Brave’s consistency measured against a Giant’s synthetic spike.

But the heist of baseball’s most sacred record is a more complicated fraud. This was a journey to deception replete with passive accessories (Bud Selig), obfuscating co-conspirators (Don Fehr) and ham-handed federal investigators who never rounded the bag in time to stop Bonds.

The scam happened, as we knew it would. And nothing — not the two authors from “Game of Shadows” or a chatty mistress named Kimberly Bell or pennies tossed in a wishing well — could save what was real from betrayal.

A record alone wasn’t swiped, but also a time and a place and a belief linked to Aaron that will now be supplanted by a high-def vision of Bonds as the Home Run King.

Out with April of ’74. In with August of ’07. Out with the famous replay of Aaron that binds Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to a social transition in American history. In with an image of toy syringes and Magic Marker asterisks and steroid chants that tie disillusioned baseball fans to Bonds’s protesters, who, oddly enough, would ransack a nun’s habit to grab a homer by the antihero.

In with Bonds, who takes without feeling debt service to the game. Out with Aaron, who gave knowing what he meant to the game.

Different men, different worlds. The night Aaron passed Babe Ruth, with No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the home run unfolded on television just as chromatic dials became a regular feature on Zeniths.

Black and white was so ’60s, except in skin tones. Aaron received nearly a million pieces of mail during his pursuit, many of them containing death threats and salutations that began with the word “Dear” and a racial slur. Where else could he be more vulnerable to racists than in a batter’s box with walls made of chalk? But where else could his visibility have so strongly conveyed respect as an equal opportunity?

The visual of Aaron’s courage maintains its meaning. Always will. But as that reel is tucked into film vaults, as the new clips are loaded with Bonds as the symbol of grandeur instead of Aaron, the next generation will lose out on a ’70s scene that remains a necessary education.

Aaron prompted dialogue about race and politics and provided a tale of inspiration. And for many Americans, he meant relief from the oppression of daily burdens. In 1974, sports were still a diversion, whether from Watergate or the Patty Hearst kidnapping or even the divorce of Sonny and Cher.

The at-bats of Bonds aren’t an escape. For almost four years, baseball has longed for a diversion from Bonds. The game has never gained distance from the issues that revolve around him, including Balco and steroid investigations and George J. Mitchell and baseball officials who enabled a doping culture by clapping along as the league cashed in on the long ball during the mirage of power in the late ’90s.

If the past had to offer a nod to the present, why did Bonds have to be the one who took the bow? Maybe Bonds isn’t a villain as much as he is a funhouse mirror to a supersized nation, where distortion is bottled and sold, where silicone body parts are purchased like new tires.

There are many good folks playing baseball, but Bonds represents a culture of skepticism in sports and the modern-day mantra of achievement: Whatever it takes. Faking it seems wrong. And yet we dine on phony baloney. The Giants’ owner, Peter Magowan, recently said Bonds’s marks “will stand the test of time,” and, he added, “be looked back upon as important and good.”

Perspective is all local. But in a way, Magowan is right. Bonds’s record route will be revisited in perpetual highlights. He is now the go-to clip.

It’s on to a new identity for baseball. Aaron’s presence as Home Run King begged everyone to ask, What was the social value of his achievement? Bonds leaves all to wonder, What is the monetary worth of his home run ball?

The meaning of a record has been stolen. What remains? Many fingerprints and one counterfeit King.

E-mail: selenasports@nytimes.com

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