By Jim Caple
So, with Barry Bonds a mere 47 home runs away from the most renowned record in baseball, and with the media poised to huddle nearby for breathless hourly news reports ("Barry is at his locker ... He's sitting back in his leather recliner ... He's picking up the remote ... I'm not sure ... but I think ... yes, now I'm quite certain -- Barry is definitely changing the channel ... Wait, no. He's just turning down the volume.''), there is one major question nearly as important as whether he passes Hank Aaron:
How will you feel about it?
Will you be caught up in the moment as you were in 1998 during the epic McGwire-Sosa home run chase, flipping open your cell phone every 10 minutes for an update, racing to the TV to watch every at-bat and paddling your dinghy into crowded McCovey Cove for the chance of catching a million-dollar baseball? Or will you ignore the chase and the hype because you stubbornly consider Hammering Hank the real king, the true hero who hit all those home runs the old-fashioned natural way? Or will you actively root against Bonds because you believe his numbers are tainted, heckling him every time he steps into the batter's box, telling him at every opportunity that he stinks and his mother dressed him funny?
We'll see what the nation's reaction will be as Bonds approaches Aaron (assuming he's healthy enough to do so), but here's one guarantee. It will not be the national lovefest McGwire and Sosa received in 1998, when those two sluggers captivated us amid gloomier news of a White House scandal and a falling stock market.
For one thing, there is so much hysteria over the steroid issue now that any player who looks like he might have ever ingested anything stronger than Wheaties is virtually considered a criminal. Why these same fans have no similar suspicions/concerns about the size and muscles of football players is unclear, but that's the way it is.
People care about the numbers in baseball, so they are very sensitive anytime they may have to memorize a new record.
Secondly, whether their feelings are justified or not, most fans don't like Bonds. Whenever I write about Barry I'm flooded with e-mail from angry fans who consider him a cheat, a disgrace to baseball and a despicable person who probably doesn't return his videos on time. During his excruciating rehab last summer, I wrote that I missed watching Bonds bat, but based on the e-mail I received you would have thought I had called for replacing the national anthem with the pregame sacrifice of a dozen kittens. I get used to a lot of hate mail, but this was the first time that everyone disagreed with me, instead of just Yankees fans.
Well, that's not quite right. I did receive a compliment or two, but they were from fans in San Francisco.
Which is only natural. Fans always root for the hometown player. As long as the player continues to produce on the field, no one cares what he does off the field. They cheer Gary Sheffield in New York, and he apparently has the same alleged steroid history as Bonds. They cheered for Albert Belle in Cleveland. They cheered for John Rocker in Atlanta before he started blowing all those games.
So as long as Barry keeps sending fastballs into orbit, San Francisco fans will continue to cheer and applaud and bow before him as usual, while waving rubber chickens at any opponent who has the temerity to walk him. And if Bonds should break Aaron's record, there will be so many tears shed that they'll have to raise the span on the Golden Gate Bridge.
As for the rest of the country? I suspect some fans will get swept up by the drama and finally come to appreciate Bonds. Others will follow the chase with a detached interest for no other reason than it is the biggest record in sports. Others will openly root against Bonds, disparaging his achievements on talk radio and in blogs.
And most fans will follow the story (it will be hard to not do so, sports coverage being what it is today) with a good amount of interest, only wishing the whole time that it was Ken Griffey Jr. instead.