Bonds, Poised to Match Ruth, Offers Mixed Legacy

The saga of slugger Barry Bonds is being watched closely by sports fans — including young baseball players who dream of someday playing in the big leagues. To many of them, Bonds represents a tangle of fame, glory and bad press. As Bonds approaches Babe Ruth's home run mark, NPR's Tom Goldman discusses steroids and stardom with top high school prospects.

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Tonight in San Francisco Giant star Barry Bonds has a chance to move into second place on baseball's all time homerun list. Bonds has 713 homeruns, one behind the legendary Babe Ruth. Bonds pursuit of Ruth and homerun leader Hank Aaron has been clouded by doping allegations. It has also triggered debates about cheating and the pursuit of stardom.

Last night NPR's Tom Goldman sat down with some young baseball players in Vancouver, Washington, to find out what the Bonds saga means to the next generation of athletes.

TOM GOLDMAN: It's the sports version of kids in a candy store. Three members of Vancouver's Heritage High baseball team are at their coach's house in a carpeted basement rumpus room. They're shooting miniature basketballs on an arcade game called Nothing But Net.

They blow off about 15 minutes of high school boy energy, then grab two boxes of pizza and head into the next room for the main event, a telecast of the San Francisco Giants/Houston Astros game.

Barry Bonds isn't in the starting lineup, but there's a chance he might pinch hit, might hit one out and tie Babe Ruth. The boys stretch out in front of a massive 110 inch big screen TV, but in the darkened room the mood changes. 18- year-old Steven Samples is a senior at Heritage High.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME)

STEVEN SAMPLES: You know we should be celebrating somebody who's hit 713 homeruns. If they hit 714, 715, we should be celebrating that, not, you know, is it fake? Is he juiced? We shouldn't be asking those questions when these numbers are being reached.

GOLDMAN: But the nation's sports fans have been asking questions. For Samples and his teammates those questions have been a constant and sometimes deflating backdrop as they have come of age in what's considered baseball's steroids era.

Brady Milletich is a 17-year-old first baseman and pitcher.

BRADY MILLETICH: People just around town are like, oh, you're a baseball player, oh, steroids. Every time I talk to someone about baseball, it's always steroids is the first thing that comes up and it's kind of frustrating as a baseball fan and, you know, player as a whole.

GOLDMAN: For Steven Samples, it's even personal. He's a star infielder who's gotten a scholarship to Oregon State University, ranked number five in the nation. Samples has a short powerful build, he's five seven and can bench press 300 pounds. He says people joke and call him Barry.

SAMPLES: They look at me and you can just tell by the way some people look at you or talk to you that, you know, maybe they suspect, you know, something's up.

GOLDMAN: This hurts Samples. He's had a troubled home life and baseball has been his salvation. Samples wants to make it to the major leagues. He also acknowledges the minor leagues are filled with hungry guys like him. Indeed, most of this season's steroid suspensions have happened in the minors.

I asked Samples about temptation.

You know if you were to spot, say, in double A ball or something like that and you just, you needed something a little more, could you ever see doing it?

SAMPLES: If you could tell me that if I don't take steroids, I'm not going to the major leagues and I'll be a construction worker or something else or if I take them and I will make the major leagues, I would be a construction worker.

GOLDMAN: Samples says his respect for the game is his ultimate deterrent. 17- year-old outfielder Devin Grogans relies on the advice he got from his football coach.

DEVIN GROGANS: And the one thing that really stuck with me was he talked about microwave America, which is kind of the idea that everybody wants things now and that they can't wait and that's kind of what society has come to, is that nobody wants to put in hard work.

GOLDMAN: None of the three players is a Barry Bonds fan, but when the conversation turns to Bonds 713th homerun the night before, the three smile and trade high fives. Samples had watched the Titanic blast on TV.

SAMPLES: Yeah, I watched in amazement. It's like watching a golf ball being hit like a Tiger Woods shot. I mean you just see the ball just take off and it's just so far gone.

GOLDMAN: Bonds didn't play last night, but these three aspiring ball players and many sports fans around the country will be ready tonight. They may not trust or like Bonds, but they'll still sneak a peak as an athlete cloaked in doubt keeps swinging for the fences.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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