SBJ/July 30 - August 5, 2007/Opinion

Crafting a symbolic nod to pre-steroid era

As slugger Barry Bonds eclipses Henry Aaron’s all-time major league home run record, both he and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig find themselves barreling toward an inescapable day of reckoning. Their predicament calls to mind an old African proverb: “The teeth are smiling, but is the heart?”

While the legacies of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron loom, baseball struggles with an entangled web of half-truths and hardball that poses a seemingly hopeless dilemma: How can Major League Baseball recognize the Bonds record without demoting the untarnished, pre-steroid achievements of Aaron, Roger Maris and others?

Although yawn-inspiring, the great Bonds home run non-chase of 2007 begs an apparent stalemate between truth and suspicion. But is the Bonds conundrum really a dilemma — is there an escape that neither denigrates history nor singles out Bonds?

Baseball is unique because posterity, sooner or later, will always put its stamp on the game. When Aaron clubbed his record-breaking 715th career homer, he lamented that, until then, Ruth’s all-time mark had been regarded as the greatest of all records, but when he broke it, the “greatest” suddenly became Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. The implications were clear: America was neither ready to dethrone its greatest team sports icon, nor to anoint a black man as Ruth’s successor. We are largely over both hurdles today, but his point was made — the ghosts of baseball’s past do not surrender easily — and so Aaron will be absent whenever Bonds’ dubious day comes.

Since history’s final imprint cannot be denied, the real issue now is whether baseball can define how its records are ultimately perceived. Baseball is a larcenous game, a tobacco-spitting, win-at-all-costs throwback to robber barons and criminals, entrepreneurs and capitalists; baseball, more than any other game, is really us. And what do Americans do when history throws us a curve? Rewrite it, of course.

When a droopy-eyed Maris threatened Ruth’s revered 60-homer season in 1961, Commissioner Ford Frick announced that any new record would be forever impugned as the “162-game” mark. The great Maris asterisk was thus born, though the asterisk itself does not literally exist in the record books. It doesn’t have to, for Frick has already burned it into our national baseball psyche.

The most expedient answer to the home run quandary would be to slap an asterisk onto the Bonds mark. But that won’t happen because it unfairly singles out Bonds amid a whole era of bloated sluggers. No, baseball’s indelible legacy demands a more reasoned, if not acerbically poetic solution.

Let baseball assign a real asterisk to both Maris and Aaron. What? After all these years we should qualify their marks? Why not?

If the new ones have been stolen, then steal the true records back by framing them in the pre-steroid era. What could be more true to baseball’s larcenous legacy of curve balls, hidden balls, stolen signs and brush-back retaliation than an eye-for-an-eye countermeasure?

Baseball would be relieved of proving that Bonds stole his record with steroids, while just one backhanded punctuation mark would automatically abridge all the alleged post-steroid pretenders without accusing any individually. Confronting the truth, which most everyone believes anyway, would actually set baseball free, so why not pay permanent homage to both Maris and Aaron with one uncompromising notation that reeks of poetic baseball justice: * The last record holder prior to the period commonly known as the steroid era.

If baseball does not expressly assign such an asterisk to Aaron and Maris, history will be sure to slap one onto Bonds. Yet a judiciously placed real asterisk would assure the rightful standing of both Aaron and Maris, and would put Bonds in his place, too. The great steroid era would be contained if not properly laid to rest.

Case closed?                                 

Eldon L. Ham is an adjunct professor of sports, law and society at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

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