THERE was a certain painful irony when Barry Bonds recently passed Mickey Mantle in lifetime home runs. Mantle hit 536 home runs in his great career, but he was washed up when he was at the same age at which Bonds is now having his greatest season. Mickey himself blamed alcohol.
Mantle began his career with all the physical equipment to become the greatest ball player of all time. Nobody hit the ball farther than Mickey Mantle and very few -- Babe Ruth, Mark McGwire, Jimmie Foxx -- hit it as far.
Yet Mantle was also clocked as the fastest man in baseball getting down to first base. He was one of the few sluggers who could drop a beautiful bunt and beat it out for a hit. No one else ever had his combination of speed and power -- while it lasted. But, before his career was over, very ordinary players were being sent in as pinch runners for him.
How do you compare players who were spectacular at their peaks with players who remained stars for 20 years? One of the reasons for the resentment of Hank Aaron's breaking Babe Ruth's lifetime home run record was that Aaron was never in Ruth's class as a slugger in his best years. He just outlasted the Babe. Aaron had almost 4,000 more official times at bat over his career -- the equivalent of about seven additional seasons.
The man who was most resented -- for breaking Ruth's single season home run record -- was of course Roger Maris. Maris was a fine ball player and a bona fide slugger, but he never hit 40 home runs in a season except for the one year when he hit 61. No one wanted to see the greatest record in baseball broken by a one-year wonder.
Some have tried to say that Hank Aaron was resented because he was black. But being white didn't keep Maris from being resented even more. Most of the seats in Yankee Stadium were empty when he hit his record-breaking 61st home run -- quite a contrast with the packed ball parks wherever Mark McGwire went while closing in on his own home run record.
A lot has to do with the personality of the player, as well as his past record. Willie Mays was universally popular and -- as someone who twice hit over 50 home runs in a season -- he was accepted as a worthy heir to the Ruth records. Had he broken either or both of them, he would undoubtedly have been better received than either Maris or Aaron.
What about Barry Bonds? What if he breaks the record that Mark McGwire set only three years ago?
In personality, Bonds seems much more like Roger Maris than like crowd-pleasers such as Willie Mays or Babe Ruth. Maris was a private man, respected by his teammates, but not appreciated by the media, who like more colorful players like Sammy Sosa or Bunyanesque figures like Mark McGwire. It is very unlikely that the kinds of quotes attributed to Yogi Berra will ever be attributed to Barry Bonds.
None of this should matter when judging a baseball player. Barry Bonds has as much right to be Barry Bonds as Sammy Sosa has to be Sammy Sosa or Babe Ruth had to be Babe Ruth. If we were more rational creatures in some other galaxy, instead of human beings here on earth, perhaps it wouldn't matter.
But if Bonds breaks McGwire's home run record this year, he will probably not get as much -- or as favorable -- publicity as either McGwire or Sosa did three years ago, when they had their memorable and see-saw home run duel, with both surpassing Ruth and Maris.
That may not matter much to Barry Bonds. But there are others out there looking for signs of "racism" everywhere and such people will have a field day if Barry doesn't get the kudos that McGwire got. And the country doesn't need another divisive issue.
Back in 1979, when Willie Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame -- but not unanimously -- some saw this lack of unanimity as sheer racism. But nobody before him had ever been elected unanimously. It may take an idiot to think that Babe Ruth or Willie Mays does not belong in the Hall of Fame, but all idiots aren't racists.
If Barry Bonds misses Mark McGwire's record this year but makes it next year, he will probably be acclaimed more, as someone who did not just get hot one year, like Roger Maris. On the other hand, a season like Bonds is having this year may come just once in a lifetime, even for the greats. How often does a player hit more home runs than singles, as Bonds has this year? Not even Babe Ruth did that -- and he was the one who put home runs on the