Bonds' Approaching Triumph Has Mixed Meaning

San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds is predicted to soon break Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. Not everyone is celebrating. Former Sports Illustrated columnist Ray Ratto weighs in on the mixed sentiment.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn from breaking form in a news business to breaking records in sports. Sportswriters are predicting that sometime in the next few weeks San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds will surpass the all-time homerun record set by Hank Aaron, 755 homeruns. Some people are excited to see that record surpassed. Others are upset that Bonds might be the one to do it.

So we wanted to know - what is it about Bonds? Is he baseball's newest hero or biggest jerk? Here to slug it out is Roy S. Johnson, a former top editor at Sports Illustrated. He was just named the new editor-in-chief of Men's Health magazine. He joined us from his office in Manhattan. Also on the line is Ray Ratto, a sports columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. ROY S. JOHNSON (Editor, Men's Fitness): Good morning. How are you?

MARTIN: Great, now that I'm talking to you both. Roy, let's start with you. And congratulations on a new gig.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you. It's actually Men's Fitness magazine…

MARTIN: Men's Fitness magazine.

Mr. JOHNSON: The other guys are my primary competitor.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's all right. We just want to clear it up early on.

MARTIN: Important to do. Thanks for clarifying. So as of today, Barry Bonds is about 10 homeruns away from Aaron, right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes.

MARTIN: So it's pretty clear he's going to be the one to take it. Why all the ambivalence about Bonds?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I'm not sure there's ambivalence. I think people are very passionate about it, one way or another. It's hard to be ambivalent about someone who is about to break the biggest record in sports, particularly considering two primary facts, that he has - right or wrong - become the poster child for the - for baseball steroids era and all of the machinations involved with that.

And also because he's not the most pleasant person to ever put on a baseball uniform, and that has been very clear to people even before we saw "Bonds on Bonds" on ESPN and have read about him for years. So the combination of his involvement in the steroids case and his personality, if it can be called that, pretty much leading him to be someone who is, you know, polarized baseball fans everywhere.

MARTIN: Ray, you cover Major League sports there. Why does this record matter so much? Roy called it the biggest record in sports. Why is it the biggest record in sports?

Mr. RAY RATTO (Sports Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle): Well, you know, I have actually tried to wrap my brain around that because there are other records that are, you know, just as intriguing. The, you know, 56 - hitting in 56 games in a row comes immediately to mind. But this is the one that you can actually sort of see ahead of you. I mean, the Bonds chase of Henry Aaron has been basically going on for five years now, I mean - and you can never really predict when somebody might hit 56 in 56 games in a row.

So I think it's the one that is easiest to anticipate and see off in the distance because the funny thing is that Henry Aaron never got this kind of glowing praise when he was playing, and not even 10 years after he retired. I mean, there is this new sort of mythologizing about the very real, you know, trials that he faced breaking Babe Ruth's record that people didn't seem to be interested in 10 and 15 years ago. So I don't know why it is the - quote, "the most hallowed record in sports," but so many people have declared it so, I guess it must be true.

MARTIN: Is it important to be nice these days? Roy was pointing out that Barry's not the most - well, actually, let's go back and just clarify that question. Is it really true that a lot of fans can't stand Barry Bonds, or is it that the media doesn't like Barry Bonds?

Mr. RATTO: Oh, I think one is probably inseparable from the other. Bonds has never been - Bonds has been capable of great charm, but he shows it rarely. He is not, in fact, popular with his fellow players.

A recent USA Today poll showed that he was - you know, I don't know how you determine this - but he was the least friendly and affable guy in the business by his peers. So I think it's a, you know, it's a fairly universal feeling that, you know, this guy can bring the unpleasant in a moment's notice.

MARTIN: Roy, you said is it necessary to be a nice guy to be a sports hero?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think in this day and age when there's so much talk about athletes being, quote unquote "role models," and, you know, living in a 24-hour sports whirl, it certainly helps. It is not necessary in order to be a top performer in your sport.

But when it comes to Madison Avenue, when it comes to being interviewed on a regular basis by the ESPNs, the blogs and, you know, 24-hour sports world we live in, I think it certainly helps to be someone who is personable, who expresses himself well and who comes across as someone who cares not just about what they do on the field, but off the field as well.

MARTIN: Is it okay to be - Ray, this is for you - it seems okay to be a bad boy like Allen Iverson in basketball. But there seems to be zero tolerance in baseball. Do you agree? And why would that be?

Mr. RATTO: Well, I'd think - I don't know that you can break it down by individual sports. Bonds really is an unusual case in that, I mean, he's been around now for more than 20 years, and for much of that, you know, has developed, you know, either through his own connivance or, you know, with the interpretations of others this reputation is being the, you know, America's leading sports pain in the butt.

And, you know, I don't know if there's a parallel for Bonds unless you want to go all the way back to Jack Johnson. I mean, there have been polarizing figures in this sport before, but never really to this extent to the point where there is literally nobody who doesn't have an opinion on Bonds hasn't held it for years and would not shift it no matter what kind of argument you make for it. He's - I think he's unique in that way.

MARTIN: Roy Johnson, do you think race plays any part in this conversation?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, race pays a part in every conversation we have in America. So it would be naive to say that it doesn't. How much of a part of plays is very difficult to assess because it depends on who's doing the evaluating. It's interesting you brought up Allen Iverson being a bad boy. I think you could probably separate the bad boy caricature from actually being a jerk, which is the word you used when you first talked about Barry Bonds. Well, most people wouldn't necessarily say Allen Iverson is a jerk. Now, he has certainly…

MARTIN: Well, I agree. I agree with that.

Mr. JOHNSON: …represented a persona that could be classified as bad boy. But people who know him and has spent time with him, well, you hardly heard anyone saying he's a jerk. So that's a very different type of image than the one Bonds has been labeled with.

MARTIN: I'm just thinking more about the question - and we're down to a less than a couple of minutes. It's a rich topic that we're not going to be really be available unpack fully. But the question of whether one needs to be more of a pleaser to achieve approval.

Mr. JOHNSON: Iconic status - I don't know that so much of a pleaser, but we certainly, you know, those of us with children who watched sports, you certainly feel better when the people that they admire, when the jerseys that they want to buy are worn by athletes who represent themselves well both on and off the floor. So, you know, I think we just live in that kind of world now where people are starting to pay more attention, that Ty Cobb could have gotten away with it. There's another person that as Ray was talking came to mind. But, again, he did not live and at ESPN World. You know, if he was around today, Barry Bonds might be Tinkerbelle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Very quickly, Ray, does the controversy go away or get bigger after Bonds gets to number 755 - or 756?

Mr. RATTO: I think it depends entirely on whether he is indicted by the federal government on tax evasion. And can perjury charges…

MARTIN: (unintelligible). Okay.

Mr. RATTO: Yeah. I mean, I just it breaks down into that, because there really are only two stories left to tell on this guy.

MARTIN: Okay, we're going to have leave it there. Thanks so much. Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle. We were also joined by Roy S. Johnson, editor of Men's Fitness magazine. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.

Mr. RATTO: Take care.

(Soundbite of music)

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