Bonds fails to bond with America

Letter from Washington
Click to follow

Is it a case of record fatigue – or does America simply not very much care for its latest home run king? In a final weekend of the baseball season that saw records cascading left, right and centre field, Barry Bonds landed the big one. Only three years ago, Mark McGwire's 70 home runs in a single season seemed an Everest. On Friday night by San Francisco Bay, Bonds scaled that peak with almost insulting ease, smiting numbers 71 and 72 and crowning an unbelievable offensive year.

And yet baseball, a sport with a sense of its history and fixated by statistics as no other, has been oddly unmoved, at least until these final few days. And it's not just because of the shadow of 11 September – though that ghastly event has cast a pall over everything, sport included, rendering almost indecent such innocent pastimes as dreaming about home run records old and new.

Nor is it because Bonds plays for the San Francisco Giants, meaning that much of the saga has unfolded in the Pacific time zone, too late to make evening TV or the main editions back East where the media that matters is concentrated. Nor can we blame the lack of excitement on the lack of a race like 1998's, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa slugged it out to the very last game.

No, for the gentlemen of the sporting press, Barry Bonds just isn't a person to warm to. Babe Ruth was larger than life, and fondly forgiven his every peccadillo. ''Big Mac'' is an amiable ox, Sosa an impish, permanently smiling individual plainly thrilled to be at the centre of national attention. Bonds' quest this year has been a dry, rather lonely affair – as befits the man himself.

Now you can't but admire Bonds the athlete, 37 but in better physical shape than ever, with his compact, flat swing and lightning fast hands. A McGwire homer is a massive, epic heave which launches the ball into the heavens. A Bonds homer is like a rifle shot, sending the ball as far, but with seemingly the tiniest of backswings. He is a baseball thoroughbred too; son of Bobby Bonds, in his time an All-Star with the Giants, and godson of the greatest and most beloved Giant of all, Willie Mays – slugger, sensational outfielder, and with 660 home runs one of just six players ahead of him on the all-time career list. But Barry Bonds the person?

Read the press, and he seems to have spent most of 2001 trying to avoid his journalistic pursuers, driven by a single, surly fixation on his goal. At best he is an introspective figure, not given to smiling banter; on occasion he has given the impression of hating the whole thing. Only in the last couple of weeks, as he closed in on McGwire, has Bonds become front page national news, a shaft of normality amid the encircling terrorist gloom. But even so, the media pack of 400 trailing him around the country is only half the number who followed McGwire and Sosa.

A suspicion lingers: is Barry playing for the team, or for himself? His patience in waiting for the right pitch to hit is legendary. But purists debate whether he should have helped the Giants more in their own quest, for a play-off spot this year. "What's shocking is that Bonds has only driven in 61 runners apart from himself," writes Tom Boswell, one of America's most eminent baseball scribes, in the Washington Post. "Bonds has done an amazing job of producing least when it mattered most – with men on base or a rally in progress. But he's hit a ton of solo homers." Then there is the devaluation of records in general and home runs in particular. In the space of this last week, Cal Ripken, the game's best-loved current player and holder of the longest consecutive games streak, retired. Rickey Henderson has broken Ty Cobb's all-time career record for runs scored. The Seattle Mariners have shattered the American League record for wins in a season. Bonds himself had just broken Babe Ruth's record for walks in a season before he shattered the home run mark.

And the home run itself, still arguably the most thrilling spectacle in sport, is losing its cachet. In baseball's first 127 years, Boswell notes, there were only 18 50-homer seasons; when Babe Ruth reached the 60 mark for the first time in 1927, it was a miracle for the ages. His record stood for 34 years, and the 61 hit by Roger Maris in 1961 lasted even longer.

These days 50 means no more than a very good year, while since 1998 there have been six 60-plus homer seasons – three from Sammy Sosa, two from McGwire. Now Big Mac is history, and Bonds is on 72 and counting. A couple of years, and someone will hit 80 homers. Blue ribands are supposed to last longer than that.