The Great Home Run Chase and Popular Culture

John ArmstrongBaseball

Baseball is presently facing a major public relations crisis as Barry Bonds pursues the all-time home run record of Hank Aaron. Bonds is very likely to break Aaron’s home run record of 755 in July or early August. At least as things are presently unfolding. But Major League Baseball (MLB) is not sure how to respond to this amazing accomplishment.

Normally such an event would be the stuff of daily reports and deep fan interest. The problem is that only 8% of fans believe Barry Bonds is the greatest home-run hitter ever. Why? His alleged use of illegal steroids to enhance his performance has convinced people he cheated. It must be said that Bonds has not been convicted of a crime, nor has he admitted one. He has admitted that he “unknowingly” used drugs and the company that supplied them to him has five people connected with it who have been convicted of the illegal distribution of steroids. Several sports writers have all but proven that Bonds knew what he was doing and most fans plainly believe them. On top of all of this Barry Bonds has another problem. Fans clearly despise him. He has treated people poorly for so long that he is routinely rated as the most despised player in the entire sport.

As Bonds nears the great day, or perhaps the dark day, the commissioner is not sure what to do. He has waffled about being in attendance. Hank Aaron has said he will not be there and numerous sponsors, including MasterCard, a primary sponsor of MLB, have refused to sponsor a Bonds-related home run chase. This whole issue plagues baseball and creates deep distrust in the game and sends terribly mixed-signals to fans.

What many have not noticed is that Alex Rodriguez, often booed in New York as a bust by demanding fans, is well ahead of Bonds’ home run pace and will pass 500 home runs this season at age 31. He is on a pace to break both Aaron and Bonds records in the next decade or so. Rodriguez is the most highly paid and carefully scrutinized player of our time. His recent personal indiscretions, being seen with a woman who is not his wife for example, make him the center of attention in an entirely different way. What may irritate fans the most about A-Rod is the huge contract that he signed some years ago. It did more to turn fans against players than perhaps any money related issue in baseball history. A-Rod is a superb player. If he stays healthy he will quite likely break the home run record and he will do it without a hint of enhancement through illegal drugs. But will people care then? I wonder.

One writer has called A-Rod the “anti-Barry.” He is the greatest representation of a successful Latino player in the sport. Will this change the image of baseball? Perhaps. Fans can hope so. But this brings me back to a comment I made last week. Baseball doesn’t invent these problems. It merely reflections them from the broader culture. What we have here is an aging, cocky African-American, not even liked by other African-Americans (Bonds was recently voted the most disliked player in the game by fellow players), and a young and rich Latino who has a bit of an image problem with some. Besides this we have a game that is defending a record set by an older African-American player, now accepted by all, who had to overcome fierce racism from an earlier era to surpass Babe Ruth’s sacred record. The debates are interesting but the image of the game suffers real damage. But then this too reflects our culture. We could sure use a few stars who were genuinely good guys. We have some for sure. Albert Pujols comes to mind, a devoted Christian by all accounts, and a marvelous hitter who may break every record in fifteen years! And then there is John Smoltz, again a serious Christian and a man respected very widely for great accomplishments in and out of the game. Light still shines in the darkness, even in major league baseball. This is true in all of life, whether in business, academia or baseball. The darkness actually allows the light to appear more bright and clear.