Barry Bonds' Home Run Chase
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And we want to talk a bit more about baseball. It's summer, why not? So, Barry Bonds. The homerun watch continues, and so does the debate around his image and his place in sports history. The San Francisco Giants slugger was greeted warmly by crowds at the All-Star Game this week, something that seemed to surprise him and some sports writers. But as he closes in on Hank Aaron's homerun record there's still a divide around Bonds, including a racial divide. We wanted to talk about all this with two people who've been watching Bonds and a homerun chase closely. So yesterday we caught up with Rose Scott, a sports blogger, and Chris Ballard, a writer with Sports Illustrated. Welcome to both.
Ms. ROSE SCOTT (Sports Blogger): Thanks. Glad to be here.
Mr. CHRIS BALLARD (Writer, Sports Illustrated): Glad to be here.
MARTIN: Rose, catch us up. He is just a few homeruns away from the record. Where is he? How far does he has to go?
Ms. SCOTT: Apparently, you know, Barry is at 751, and not to my surprise. I mean, he will obviously break this record during the season. So he's close. He's knocking on the door.
MARTIN: Chris, are you surprised that he hasn't broken it yet?
Mr. BALLARD: No. I think, overall, if before the season we were told that he would have 751 at this point, I think most people would be surprised, considering his injury history and how he played last year. So I think, if anything, it's probably a bit of a vindication for the Giants in their free agent's signing of him.
MARTIN: Chris, you wrote a cover story about Bonds couple of weeks ago. And you pointed out that, you know, the country may have ambivalent feelings about Barry Bonds, but at the All-Star Game, which was this week, you know, fans from all over the country come to that game, he seemed to be greeted very warmly. What do you make of it?
Mr. BALLARD: I think that was Barry's moment, you know. That was his - as lovable as he's going to be, that was it. He smiled. He had, you know, his family there. It's in San Francisco. If there was going to be a feel-good moment during this homerun chase - if you call it a chase - that was it, I think. And I think it was almost, you know, we paid a lot of money for this ticket to this game, and that probably cuts out some of the boo birds right there.
MARTIN: Rose, is that a big story where you are, in Atlanta? Do people watch - do fans watch this? Do they care?
Ms. SCOTT: Yeah, they do.
MARTIN: What do they say?
Ms. SCOTT: You know, in your hometown, where your hometown hero is, where apparently, obviously, it's Hank Aaron, you don't want to see that record broken. But I think for the baseball fan it is a neat thing to see. And regardless of what you may think about Barry Bonds or whether you believe the allegations of steroid use or what have you, it's still exciting to see because it's the greatest - probably the greatest record in all of sports. It comes from probably, arguably, the greatest baseball player. We talk about Babe Ruth. It's a big deal here because of the Hank Aaron, you know, connection.
MARTIN: Now, ESPN did a poll a couple of weeks ago now suggesting that black fans were twice as likely to want Bonds to break the homerun record as white fans. It seems to me that if the record is tainted, anybody would be concerned about that. And so I don't know. So, Rose, I just want to ask you, what do you make of that? And Chris, I want to ask you that also.
Ms. SCOTT: You know, I try not to subscribe to polls. I mean, we have polls in everything - polls on the war, polls on sports. But, you know, when you talk about the racial divide, I mean, let's be honest, people will tell you that this country obviously has a history of racial issues. And when it comes to an African-American who is breaking a record, a symbolic record, albeit a record by another African-American, this is nowhere in comparison to what Mr. Aaron went through.
I want to be fair in this. Being an African-American, I don't want people to think, oh, you're upholding Barry Bonds. I try to be fair. But when you look at the steroid issues, there have been black players, white players, Hispanic players, you know, so it's sort of a catch-22. If you say you're for Bonds and you're black, well, it's because you're black and going for Bonds. If you're white and go against Bonds, they say, oh, you're being racist. It's an unfair way to look at it.
MARTIN: Chris, what do you think?
Mr. BALLARD: It's interesting to me because there was a lot of discussion about this when he passed Babe Ruth, and that would have seemed to be the more natural situation for it, where you had an African-American passing a, you know, a white sort of hero. And then now, you know, I can't explain that poll. To me, talking to people when I was working on the story, rarely, if ever, unless I brought it up, did race play into it.
Willy Brown, the former San Francisco mayor, I spoke to about it. And I asked him that question of, you know, about the racial aspect. And he said, at least in San Francisco, that's not the issue at all. I mean, in San Francisco, he felt - Willy Brown has strong feelings - but he felt that it was more a matter of whether you embrace Barry Bonds as part of the culture there, whether you embrace the team. And in his eyes, you couldn't not embrace the Giants if you're from San Francisco. On a national level, I did find that curious. I don't have an explanation for it and I'm curious to see what the reaction will be like when he does break it and if it breaks down that way again.
MARTIN: What about Hank Aaron? I mean, how is he feeling about all this? Rose, I think you talked to him recently, didn't you?
Ms. SCOTT: I talked to Mr. Aaron in May and just, you know, on a chance meeting. And I just asked him. I said, you know, how do you feel about this whole thing? And he said, you know, Rose, I do not care. He said I have other things that I'm tending to. Hank Aaron takes care of his mom who's still living. He has businesses here in Atlanta. You know, he really is not concerned about it. There were some issues, you know, early on this season, whether or not, you know, Hank Aaron would be in the ballpark or the commissioner would be there. And I don't think that Hank Aaron needs to be there. And I don't that Barry Bonds even thinks it's an issue as well.
Mr. BALLARD: I think even just on a very basic level, why would we expect someone whose record is being broken to follow someone on a road trip so that he can watch the record be broken? I don't think in any way Aaron should feel compelled to do that.
MARTIN: Do you think, Rose - I don't know if you spoke about this at all, but because there is this swirl about Bonds and whether it makes him wonder whether he earned it fair and square. I mean, let's just, by any standard, Bonds is a great athlete before any of these allegations commenced. I think everybody agrees with that. But I just wondered if there was any - a feeling of, well, if the record has to fall, it should be untainted.
Ms. ROSE: Well, I think you ask any, quote-unquote, "old-timer" or the old-school guys, they'll all tell you about, we didn't have this, we didn't have that, we did it the old-fashioned way, even right down to equipment and shoes and the dimensions of the mound being different. So I think…
MARTIN: Not to mention the salaries.
Ms. ROSE: Exactly. I think that's a given. So, you know, most of the old-timers we know, I think they marvel at the strength that some of these guys have and the records. At the same time, they are probably a little bit of, you know, dissension in terms of the swirling allegations. Because whether you agree or believe Bonds did something or not, we know that he is part of a steroid era, you know.
MARTIN: I also need to mention that that ESPN poll that we're talking about also found that only 37 percent of black fans think Bonds used steroids compared to 76 percent of white fans. I thought that was also an interesting data point. But moving on, there's been some talk this season both by players and sort of other commentators about the fact that a new generation of African-Americans don't seem to be as interested in baseball anymore.
Now, I just wonder if either of you think that Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's homerun record might renew interests in the sport among African-Americans, young African-Americans. Chris, what do you think?
Mr. BALLARD: Yeah. I think it's more likely that if Ryan Howard were to continue the pace that he had last year when he had 57 home runs, and to do that over a number of years and become, you know, the current homerun king as an African-American, I think that would have a greater impact because I could see younger kids looking up to him.
I don't imagine that many young kids, at this point, look up to Barry Bonds the way you would a younger player in his prime. You know, I think he probably only has one to two years left anyway. I don't imagine - he's, you know, he's breaking an African-American's record. It's not something, I think, that breaks down on racial lines when kids are looking at it.
Ms. SCOTT: I don't think that Bonds - whether or not Bonds will break this record this season or next, I don't really think that has an affect. I think you have to look at the fact that with basketball and football being the sports that more African-American young boys are getting involved in at an earlier age, I think you just don't see a lot of African-American boys partaking in baseball for whatever reason. But I don't think that Barry Bonds breaking the record will in any way, shape or form improve that or even decrease that.
MARTIN: And Chris, finally, do you think that - you were saying that the All-Star Game was Barry Bonds's moment - but once he breaks the record, which he seems very likely to do this season, do you think that fans, particularly those who've had very mixed feelings about him, that their attitudes will soften once the record is finally his?
Mr. BALLARD: I think with Bonds it may happen five years from now, it may happen 10 years from now, but certainly not any time soon. You know, George Foreman was once a very hated boxer by many people and now he's, you know, he's sort of soft, fuzzy, plush toy of a human being who sells grills and books and stuff.
And it is possible. You know, I don't think Bonds will become that likeable. But, you know, down the road, people will look back and look at his accomplishments and say X percent of these guys were using steroids. And so, regardless of what else you take into account, what he accomplished was phenomenal. And regardless of his batting average and his on-base percentage and these other factors were impressive, yeah, we're going to give him his due now. Especially when he's out of the spotlight and he can't counteract that by being prickly in public or press. But it certainly won't happen this year.
MARTIN: All right. Chris Ballard writes for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from their offices in New York. Rose Scott also joined us. She's a sports blogger. She joined us from member station WCLK in Atlanta. Thanks so much to both of you.
Ms. SCOTT: Thanks.
Mr. BALLARD: Thank you.