Controversial San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds once boasted that he'd take great relish in passing the legendary Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list, but had qualms about supplant-ing Hank Aaron as the career home run king.
Bonds was roundly denounced for playing the race card, since Ruth was White and Aaron is Black. There's great irony in that criticism; Bonds certainly won't suffer Aaron's fate. Twenty-two years ago many fans, sportswriters and some players flipped the race card at Aaron. They gagged at the thought that a Black man could break the hallowed record of baseball's greatest White icon.
Aaron received mountains of hate mail, taunts and threats to his family. He was surrounded by a squad of security guards at ballparks and armed guards off the field. Aaron was gracious and dignified during the ordeal and repeatedly praised Ruth's accomplishments.
Aaron, however, didn't flinch when it came to speaking his mind about discrimination in baseball. He chided baseball owners for the lack of opportunities for Blacks in coaching and front-office spots. Since his retirement, Aaron still on occasion publicly lashes out at the lingering racial biases of some owners and front office managers. Bonds, instead, mostly complains about discrimination against him and has roped some Blacks into doing the same.
When Bonds sprints past Ruth, the talk won't be that a Black man had the temerity to pass a mythical White hero, but that the Black man that did it cheated to accomplish that feat. Bonds is alleged to have stuffed himself with and lathered on his skin a storehouse of steroids.
The charge at this point is still just that — a charge. In the past three years, Bonds has tested clean, an investigation is ongoing and no criminal charges have been filed against him. Bonds chalks the accusations up to envy and racism, and he is both right and wrong. There are probably a slew of fans and sportswriters that hate the idea of a big, rich, famous, surly, blunt-talking Black superstar that routinely thumbs his nose at the media getting such prominent play. But, there is no denying that Bonds' statistics have boomed late in his career, and his body has changed in ways that indicate steroid use.
It's no stretch to see a double standard in the hits against Bonds. Outspoken Blacks — especially Black superstars, and especially those who engage in bad-boy behavior — are often slammed harder than White superstars who are outspoken and engage in bad behavior.
But Bonds also has been backed by many Black and White players, and by many sportswriters and fans. They laud his accomplishments, think that he's been more of an asset than a liability in a sport dogged by allegations of cheating.
Bonds is no innocent when it come to his image and attitude. All high-profile public figures and celebrities are under an intense public microscope. Bonds has taken the hits. The taunts and catcalls at the ballparks, and the hate mail that he gets are relentless. But much of that hate mail, unlike the hate mail that Aaron got, has less to do with bumping Ruth from his home run perch than the belief that Bonds has tainted the sport. And even then, nearly half the fans in a recent USA Today/CNN poll said his records should not be taken away if he's found guilty of taking steroids.
The ultimate irony is that if Bonds somehow manages to threaten Aaron's record, the fans and sportswriters will turn the heat up even higher. The blame for that won't be on race or even on Bonds' alleged drug use — it will be Bonds' image and attitude. The rap will be that a guy with a lousy image and bad attitude is not worthy to wear the mantle of home-run king.
That's nonsensical. Baseball is a sport where some of its top stars, even legends, have acted boorishly and committed bad, even criminal acts. The best example of that is Ruth. He was a notorious carouser, got into fights, was a moneygrubber, tried to punch an umpire and was suspended for nine games.
But in sport, image is everything, and Bonds is as much a victim of his image as Aaron was of his color. And that's the difference between Bonds and Aaron.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.