Sports

Home runs no longer magical

Barry Bonds is closing in on Hank Aaron's home run record, and the sooner he breaks it, the better.

Tired of hearing about Barry?

Me too.

Perhaps when he hits No. 756, he will fade the way 40-year-old players are supposed to. Perhaps we'll get very lucky and he'll round third, touch home, blow kisses to the sky (presumably not to the god of better cooking through chemistry) and retire on the spot.

And don't look for Aaron to be there. He's said he's not interested, and who could blame him? Given the strength, grace and humility with which he chased down Babe Ruth, why should he want to watch or celebrate the surly one breaking the most cherished record in the game?

The unfortunate thing with Bonds' chase to catch The Hammer isn't the fact he's breaking sports' most revered record while doing it under a chemical cloud.

And, yes, I know Barry has never been charged with anything, nor has he ever tested positive for steroids. But do I think he used steroids? Yes. Do you? Thought so. Almost 80 percent of baseball fans (even more than 50 percent in California) believe Bonds used steroids.

If he did, maybe they didn't help him hit a single homer, but unless we know for sure, there's always the doubt, always the link.

The real shame is what Bonds and others in the pumped-up, homer-happy past 10 years have done to the value and mystique of the home run. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are part of it, too.

We used to believe in home runs.

When we were kids, the homer was the Holy Grail. The more you hit, the farther you hit them, the better you were, or at least that's what we thought as we tapped dirt off our sneakers, dug in and tried to launch one out of the school yard.

In the 1950s and '60s, even into the '70s, the guys who hit the long ball were the heroes -- Willie, Mickey, Duke, Teddy Ball Game, McCovey, Killebrew.

And hitting 500 of them in a career?

When Ted Williams hit No. 500 in 1960, he joined the most elite of groups that included Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott.

Not even Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio hit 500!

It meant something.

Even after Mays (1965), Mantle and Eddie Mathews (1967) and Aaron (1968) hit their 500th homers, the club was still exclusive enough to merit our awe.

But the long ball has lost some of its magic, because we no longer can look at the prodigious feats of sluggers without wondering what extra ingredients have gone into producing them.

Even those high school and college homers aren't what they used to be, because of the metal bat, but that's juice of another kind.

When Frank Thomas (who's never been linked to any size-producing agent other than a double cheeseburger) hit his 500th a few days ago, the impact was minimal, even though he became just the 21st player in the history of the game to reach the milestone.

Homers have become cheap, we hope because either hitters are better or pitchers are worse, or both, not because of the clear or the cream.

But Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro and Thomas all joined the 500-club since 1999. All but Thomas share some link to the steroids probe.

Alex Rodriguez (492, going into Friday), Jim Thome (484) and Manny Ramirez (481) could reach 500 homers this season. Only A-Rod is likely to draw much fanfare, because he's the one who could go on to catch Bonds without the help of anything other than an inflated ego and bank account.

Time was, 500 homers would punch your ticket to Cooperstown. Even 400. The bar may get raised.

McGwire (583), despite having numbers that used to be an automatic, was soundly rejected on his first ballot. Palmeiro (569) probably will be, too.

Sosa hit his 600th a few days back. For Mr. Corked Bat, 600 might not be enough.

We'll see on that.

For now, we wait on Barry to blast away. Perhaps it would be fitting if he hit No. 756 away from San Francisco where the boos are likely to fall heavily. In San Fran he at least has his pocket of fans.

The guess is, if he's tied or one shy, he'll suddenly take a day off to "rest" in hopes of hitting the historic shot at home where someone might actually care.

Me, I just hope some day the joy of the home run is back and we can celebrate when someone -- anyone -- makes Barry No. 2.

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