He is the voice of baseball, his descriptions an accent of grace upon so many of the Dodgers’ extraordinary moments. From a perfect game by Sandy Koufax to a no-hitter by Fernando Valenzuela and a World Series home run by Kirk Gibson, Vin Scully has spun history into magic.
In 1974, when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in a game against the Dodgers, Scully called it. But at the start of a season in which Barry Bonds could pass Ruth and then Aaron for perhaps the most cherished mark in American sports, the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame announcer wants no part of that history.
“I would just as soon it not happen against the Dodgers,” Scully said. “With Aaron, it was a privilege to be there when he did it. It was just a great moment. With Bonds, no matter what happens now, it will be an awkward moment. That’s the best word I can think of now. If I had my druthers, I would rather have that awkward moment happen to somebody else.”
Scully’s ambivalence mirrors that of fans, current and former players and sports executives across the country. No sport treasures its statistics and fusses over its milestones like baseball, and yet no one is sure of the proper way to celebrate the accomplishments of Bonds, a supremely talented player widely perceived as a cheater, the most valuable player of his league a record seven times and the biggest name in a federal investigation into steroid use.
The record book, for now: Aaron, 755 home runs; Ruth, 714; Bonds, 708.
“I think it’s probably the most revered record in sports,” former major league pitcher Jim Abbott said. “I don’t know that there’s any record in sports where people could readily name the first and second guy.”
Bonds could pass Ruth in a few weeks -- or, given a hot streak, a few days -- and then what? Fireworks and festivities? Polite applause, or silence, or jeers?
“Absolutely, you celebrate it,” Dodger pitcher Brad Penny said. “How can you not? It’s still amazing.”
On the night Aaron passed Ruth, Steve Garvey played first base for the Dodgers. He vividly recalls the electricity in the stadium that night, but he said that buzz would not surround Bonds on whatever night he might pass Ruth, or Aaron.
“I just don’t see the same anticipation, the same excitement,” Garvey said. “It’s the feeling of accomplishment, just to see a record broken, but a feeling of sadness at what’s transpired. It’s going to be tainted in the minds of a majority of the public.
“In this case, it will be more of a sadness than a gladness.”
Commissioner Bud Selig last week authorized an investigation into steroid use in baseball, persuaded to do so by what he said was the “specificity of the charges” in the book “Game of Shadows.” The book, released last month and written by two investigative reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle, details alleged use of performance-enhancing substances by Bonds and other athletes.
Bonds has denied knowingly using steroids. He never has tested positive for steroids, although baseball did not begin testing until 2003.
Selig’s announcement raised the possibility that baseball could find itself in the uncomfortable, but not unprecedented, position of celebrating a player under investigation. In full-page newspaper ads last summer, Selig congratulated Rafael Palmeiro for his 3,000th hit, at a time Palmeiro had tested positive for steroids. The test result had been withheld pending Palmeiro’s unsuccessful appeal.
At a sports business conference in New York last week, baseball’s top marketing official said he expected to run similar ads if Bonds passes Ruth and to fete him if he passes Aaron.
“The big record is 755,” said Tim Brosnan, executive vice president for business. “That’s when we go national. That’s when we bring in sponsors and create national campaigns in celebration.”
Some potential sponsors are not embracing that possibility. The president of PepsiCo said the company would participate “in a muted way.” A Home Depot executive said that company would pass unless an investigation cleared Bonds, and a Bank of America official said the bank would just say no.
“A company like ours is always going to choose the untainted opportunity,” Bank of America’s Cathy Bessant told Bloomberg News.
The San Francisco Giants, who begin their season today at San Diego, said they had not experienced any business backlash regarding their superstar outfielder. Their robust season-ticket sales have not dipped, and no companies have withdrawn their sponsorships because of Bonds, chief operating officer Larry Baer said.
Should Bonds pass Ruth, the Giants plan to party.
“There won’t be silence,” Baer said. “There will be a commemoration, an appropriate tribute for a tremendous accomplishment.
“Are we going to try to pull back or play it down or minimize it? Absolutely not. In our minds, that wouldn’t be fair, to the player and to the fans.”
Tom Gallo, a Giant fan who works as a business analyst in San Francisco, said he would be “elated” to witness Bonds hitting No. 715, or No. 756.
“A lot of people hate the guy, unless he’s on your team,” Gallo said. “He’s kind of been singled out. There are a lot of players who are part of that era.”
Abbott said he could not say whether Bonds had used steroids, but he echoed the suggestion that Bonds would not have been alone in doing so.
“I think it’s obvious that a lot of the guys in the game were pushing the limits of what they were putting in their bodies,” Abbott said. “He has played in that era and dominated in that era. There’s other guys who haven’t.”
Said Oakland Athletic third baseman Eric Chavez: “It seems like the media has a personal vendetta to knock him down. Maybe it’s his rapport with the media over the years -- I think he’s had a pretty bad one -- but it seems to me they’re trying to take him down too hard.”
And, said Oakland outfielder Milton Bradley: “I think the fact that, over the years, he hasn’t been the classiest guy, or whatever you want to say, ties into it. That’s life.”
Glenn Schwarz, sports editor of the Chronicle, said his reporters had not targeted Bonds in retaliation for his churlishness with the media. He said the book, and the newspaper stories that preceded it, illuminated a federal investigation that included grand jury testimony, court transcripts and government raids.
“That’s where the documents are,” Schwarz said. “He’s the biggest name. Here’s a guy going for one of the most hallowed records in sports. Why wouldn’t the focus be on him?”
Bonds has not endeared himself to other players. He reserves a wall of lockers in the Giants’ clubhouse for himself, and he is the only major leaguer to opt out of the standard licensing agreement with the players’ union.
He also faces the possibility of prosecution on two scores: perjury, if the government decides Bonds lied when he reportedly told a grand jury he did not knowingly use steroids, and tax evasion, if the IRS pursues the allegations of a former mistress that Bonds failed to report income from memorabilia sales.
The backlash against Bonds has transcended sports and invaded popular culture. The website www.cheaterclothing.com sells $14.99 T-shirts in the style of a Giant jersey, with “Cheater” on the front and Bonds’ uniform number on the back, with “Juiced” in place of his name.
On his list of “Top Ten Signs Your Kitty Is Nuts,” David Letterman included “Believes Barry Bonds Never Used Steroids” at No. 2. The satirical online newspaper the Onion headlined one story “Barry Bonds Took Steroids, Reports Everyone Who Has Ever Watched Baseball.”
Yet the backlash has not affected ticket sales across the country. Major league teams set an attendance record last season and are on pace to do so again this season, though one fan said she would sit on her hands if Bonds hit a milestone home run in her presence.
“I would not be cheering,” said Andrea Bloom, a chef from Long Beach. “I don’t think he deserves it. Someone that’s going to break an all-time record should be doing it with natural ability, not with chemical additives.”
To those who have worn a major league uniform, conclusions about Bonds do not come quite so easily.
“I still look at him as my childhood hero,” Chavez said. “If it comes out that he’s guilty, I don’t think my opinion of him will change. He’ll still be my childhood hero.”
In the bright sunlight of an Arizona morning at the Angels’ training camp, Abbott discussed Bonds, slowly and thoughtfully. Abbott, born without a right hand, captivated fans as he jumped from the U.S. Olympic team to the majors -- with the Angels -- and later pitched a no-hitter for the New York Yankees.
He respects the game, and he respects his fellow players. He says he is troubled by players who do not respect the game, troubled as well at the thought of publicly criticizing them. So, when asked whether he would stand and cheer were he in attendance the night Bonds hit his 715th home run, Abbott paused.
It was a long pause.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to take away from achievement that to me is unfathomable, but it’s a shame there is this mystery to it. That’s about as far as I can take it.”