|Friday, October 5
Updated: October 7, 9:19 PM ET
No longer the great American record
By Jayson Stark
Today, we celebrate Barry Bonds.
But we also mourn the passing of what used to be the coolest, most romantic record in any sport.
What Bonds has done this year truly takes our breath away. When we discuss the greatest years in baseball history, his name now moves into a neighborhood previously occupied only by the Mount Rushmore of baseball -- names like Ruth and Gehrig, Hornsby and Williams.
Mr. Bonds has been the best player of his day. So in many ways, he's every bit as deserving of holding the home run record as Mark McGwire was. In some ways, he may be more deserving.
But let's also get one thing straight. Let's recognize there's a monumental difference between this record Bonds has been chasing and the record McGwire stalked.
The record that hung over Bonds' head was a record of our time, of his time. It was a record that had held up just three years, a record that hadn't even lasted as long as the big-league career of Placido Polanco.
The record that McGwire broke, on the other hand, was a record of another time, a time of black-and-white newsreel footage, a time distant and hazy, a time that had turned it into a feat of poetry and myth.
Back then, the number 60 was the most famous, most revered, most imposing number in baseball. It was a number that meant Babe Ruth. It was a number that Mays never reached, that Aaron never reached, that Foxx and Mantle and Greenberg and Reggie never reached.
It was a number, of course, that only two men had ever reached -- Ruth and Roger Maris -- in 123 seasons of major-league baseball. Period. So until McGwire came along, 60 was to baseball what Bob Beamon's long jump was to track and field, what Wilt's 100-point night was to basketball.
But now what is it? Now, says all-knowing SABR home run historian David Vincent, "60 is like 50 used to be."
It's a fact. In 1990, when Cecil Fielder hit his 50th home run, ESPN actually broke into programming to show it live. Why not? He was only the 18th player in history to reach that number.
Meanwhile, we've witnessed five 60-homer seasons just since McGwire made it to that number, with Sammy Sosa doing it three times.
What does it say that Sosa will have hit 60 more times than all the players who came before him combined -- and not led his league in homers in any of those seasons? It says it all. That's what.
When Bonds whizzed by 60, who even stopped to think of Ruth? Who even paused to think of what that number had meant throughout most of our lifetimes? Hardly one soul. And that tells you all you need to know about the difference between Mark McGwire's home run record and Barry Bonds' home run record.
"The buildup of all those years is what made '98 so special," Vincent says. "It was because we made such a big deal of Maris' record for so many years. It lasted 37 years -- longer than the Babe's record.
"And back in the '20s, when Babe hit 60, it wasn't as big a deal. People expected that record to be broken again. Ruth had already broken it four or five times. So they thought the next year, he'd probably hit 61 or 62. But then, from '27 to '60, it didn't change. And from '61 to '97, it didn't change. So our concept, for our whole lives, was that this was a record etched in stone."
And that explains why McGwire's chase wasn't just followed by baseball fans and the usual sports-media types. It was followed by Aunt Kay and Uncle Sydney from their rocking chairs in Iowa. It was covered by Regis and Ted Koppel and "Good Morning, America."
It wasn't just a sports record. It was a major American cultural event. It had earned that place. It was special. It was a record that rose above every other record in every other game we play.
But if it's going to be a record that gets broken every three years, then it isn't going to hold that same place in our national consciousness. How can it? Why would it?
So that accounts for why there hasn't been the same sort of national pandemonium over Barry that there was over Big Mac. It isn't about his personality or his media skills or his lovability. It's about where he and his record fit in the national fabric. This time, he's a slightly smaller square in a very different quilt.
This is not meant to be one of those good-old-days columns, either. We're not arguing that players were better in the olden days, that the sport was better when grandpa took us to our first game, that expansion has wrecked the game or that television has made Bonds' magic swing just another highlight.
It doesn't even have a whole lot to do with Bonds himself. We still stop whatever we're doing when he comes to the plate. We don't want to miss a swing. We don't, in his own words, want to miss "the show."
But we also know that show in '98 was a different show, a better show, a show with a plot line that began the moment we first figured out there was such a sport as baseball.
That was the climax of the great American novel. This is just an exhilarating short story.
So celebrate Barry. He deserves it. But don't mind us if we interrupt the party for just a moment to recognize that this new record of his has sold the house on main street and moved back into the locker rooms and living rooms of our old baseball family.
It's a great record and always will be. It's just ceased to be The Greatest Record Of Them All.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.