Fouled ball

GERALD ESKENAZI, a retired New York Times sportswriter, is the author of an upcoming memoir, "Class of 1950: What Happened to the Smartest Kids in Brooklyn."

BARRY BONDS, the big lug, is making me think hard about what I’m going to do the year he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame and I cast my vote.

It used to be so easy being a baseball fan. Back in Brooklyn -- yeah, we used to have a ball team there -- we spent muggy summer nights at the candy store arguing over statistics, numbers that took on an importance in baseball that rivals E=mc2 for those who understand it.

But Bonds is torturing me on the verge of surpassing one of the great numbers in the game: Hank Aaron’s record 755 career home runs. Perhaps he will get the five homers he needs in his current series at Chicago. Perhaps this weekend in Milwaukee. At least he didn’t do it last weekend against the Dodgers, the team I loved and lost.

The torture is the possible taint of drugs, of course, creating melancholia among baseball fans everywhere. Until someone comes along with no perceived steroids baggage -- are you listening, A-Rod? -- this powerful stat will be diminished because it has lost its luster. And when you take away and tarnish a cherished number, you tear away a part of what baseball fans love.


Baseball -- with its season’s preparation beginning in the winter, then stretching 162 games over the spring, summer and fall -- fills our heads with numbers. There are assists, there are putouts, there are balls, there are strikes, there are sacrifice flies, intentional walks, innings pitched, on-base averages, slugging percentages, times caught stealing. In recent years, baseball intellectuals have created such arcane data as “quality starts.” You get the picture.

But with all these, some stick out more than others. The great numbers are often what decide arguments over who is the greatest. You can’t argue with numbers. As the onetime Glendale, Calif., banker, Casey Stengel, used to say, “You could look it up.”

A lot of the great numbers already have been surpassed, and we accept that. Gone forever is 60, Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run number. Strewn among the ruins of history is 2,130, the number of consecutive games played by Lou Gehrig. The persnickety Ty Cobb lost his 96, once the single-season stolen-base record. (Perhaps the only iconic number left is 56, the number of consecutive games in which Joe DiMaggio hit safely.)

But now, a venerable number -- one could argue, quite convincingly, it is baseball’s second-greatest behind Bonds’ single-season homer mark of 73 -- is about to be usurped by this incredible (enhanced?) performer, and something will be gone from the game.


Sure, the raw number might bolster your argument if you believe Bonds is the greatest slugger in baseball history. But someone else can counter with: “And what part of that number was enhanced by creams or pills or injections?” Maybe none, maybe a significant part. We don’t know, but we suspect.

Bonds’ accomplishment will not make people happy, at least the ones who don’t live in San Francisco. And that is the really sad part, for me, about Bonds’ Homerific run. It’s one more whittling away at the game.

We survived the loss of 60 and the others. Sure, we argued that when the un-loved Roger Maris hit No. 61; he did it in a longer season. And when Cal Ripken surpassed Gehrig’s record, there were rumbles that he did it at the expense of his team, that he often suited up merely to keep in contention for the record even though he would be ineffective. Perhaps.

But this is worse. Bonds has cast a shadow on Aaron’s career total of 755 home runs. Few begrudged Aaron the record. But with Bonds, fans find it difficult to separate their feelings of awe and anger with this often-difficult fellow. Bonds’ sometimes churlish demeanor detracts from his accomplishments as surely as the steroid thing does.

Yet here’s my confession: I will -- unhappily -- vote for Bonds, the anti-hero, when his Hall of Fame time comes. Before the suspicions took root, he was an extraordinary player who has become one of the most dangerous hitters in the game’s long history. I can’t prove he took steroids, and looking back, I find it hard to imagine, but many of my sportswriting predecessors never voted for Ted Williams as their top choice because, quite simply, they didn’t like him. Twenty of the 302 voters left him off the ballot completely!

Would I feel differently about Bonds if the steroids thing hadn’t come up? Could one great number have given way to another -- and only made the game better?

As Ernest Hemingway (a DiMaggio fan) has Jake Barnes conclude in “The Sun Also Rises”: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”