Mark W. Hendrickson

Barry Bonds’ Dec. 16 sentencing for obstruction of justice is an anticlimactic addendum to a sterling, though marred, baseball career.

Without a doubt, Bonds was a great hitter who didn’t need performance-enhancing drugs to put up Hall of Fame numbers. Bonds had dedication and self-discipline. He worked hard for many years to stay in shape, prolong his career, and be the best he could be. Unfortunately for his reputation, the consensus is that he went too far.

It’s interesting to reflect on how far people will go to gain an edge. Movie and TV stars “cheat” on what nature gives them—some with plastic surgery, others with breast augmentations, perhaps some even with steroids. Like them, Bonds tried to give the public what they were looking for—in his case, the ability to hit a baseball an awe-inspiring distance. In sports, though, cheating to gain an unfair advantage offends most Americans’ sense of fair play.

At this unhappy time for baseball, let’s look back at a player to whom Bonds was frequently compared—the game’s greatest icon: Babe Ruth. When Bonds surpassed Ruth’s career homerun total, he remarked that we shouldn’t have to hear about the Babe any more. It’s sad that he resented being spoken of in the same breath as the Babe. He should have felt honored.

Babe Ruth was sui generis—one of a kind. He occupies an irreplaceable and unmatchable spot in American sports history. In fact, you can make the case that he single-handedly elevated professional sports to national prominence.

Ruth became a legend by virtue of his prodigious athletic feats and his larger-than-life character. Where Bonds was sometimes reserved and cool toward reporters and the public, the Babe was gregarious and sunny. The fun-loving Babe led a colorful life, and he gladly made numerous visits to children in hospitals. He loved people, and people in turn loved him.

As a slugger, Ruth has no equal. Only 35 times in major league history has a player achieved a season slugging percentage of at least .700. Ruth did it nine times. Bonds did it four times, all after bulking up late in his career. Ruth hit at that level much longer, compiling an incredible cumulative slugging percentage of .711 for his 15-year career with the Yankees.

Mark W. Hendrickson

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.