What if Barry Bonds was completely clean, with no connection to steroids, a la Ken Griffey Jr.? Would Bonds still get booed wherever he went outside of San Francisco? Would fans bring signs that showed their anger, even their hatred, to every game? Would his 756th home run be celebrated on several levels above what is happening now?
It probably would. The booing, fury, and contempt seem to be more about Bonds' link to steroids than about race, the breaking of the game's most cherished record, or (at times) his insolent personality. It is, it seems, mostly about cheating to get ahead, or in his case, cheating to get to the top of the highest list in baseball history.
It is true that if Bonds were clean, but still a disagreeable or disrespectful guy, a lot of people still would have preferred that he hadn't broken Aaron's record. Rickey Henderson wasn't exactly embraced when he broke Lou Brock's record for career stolen bases, then held the third base bag above his head and exclaimed, "Today, I am the greatest."
It is true that there are, and always will be, racists. It is true that baseball records mean more than in other sports, and baseball protects its records more than any sport. When Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record, it wasn't just the racists who objected. Some purists also felt Aaron didn't deserve it because he reached 715 home runs in nearly 3,000 more at-bats than Ruth.
But this is mostly about steroids. Look at what happened to Mark McGwire. He was the king of the world in 1998 when he hit 70 home runs. Then he was tied to steroids -- even without solid evidence, such as flunking a drug test -- and then he testified before Congress. Where is he now? Granted, he was the prime candidate to walk away from baseball and never come back even if he were completely clean, but his connection to steroids, and his pitiful performance before Congress, has made him a pariah.
McGwire received 23 percent of the vote in his first year eligible for the Hall of Fame. And please, don't tell us that he didn't have the numbers. No one who makes 12 All-Star teams and has a slugging percentage nearly 100 points higher than Reggie Jackson gets only 23 percent of the vote unless the voters decided he had achieved his 583 homers unfairly, and cheated the game.
Look at what has happened to Rafael Palmeiro. The minute it was announced he had tested positive, he went directly into baseball exile, never to return. He is one of four players in history with 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, but he never played another game after testing positive. Granted, he was 40 at the time, and no longer a productive hitter, but he became an outcast because he lied. He pointed his finger at the TV cameras that day before Congress, and said he had never done steroids. And then he tested positive. In his first year eligible for the Hall of Fame, he'll be lucky to get 23 percent of the vote.
Look at what has happened to Sammy Sosa. He is having a remarkable comeback season. He took a year away from the world's hardest game, came back at age 38, and had 63 RBIs at the All-Star break. But he has gone unnoticed in many places.
He hit his 600th home run to less adulation and attention than any 600th home run in history. Why? Is it because he was suspended for corking his bat several years ago? Is it because he was exposed at the end of his career with the Cubs for perhaps not being a great teammate? Maybe. But mostly, the lack of interest in Sosa is his link to steroids -- even without solid proof.
If Bonds were completely clean, commissioner Bud Selig would have followed his every move enthusiastically instead of keeping him somewhat at arm's length. If Bonds were clean, people wouldn't bring hateful signs to Giants road games, or boo his every at-bat. If Bonds were clean, maybe he would feel more loved and respected, and therefore would show a little more warmth.
If Bonds were clean, this record -- the greatest in all of sports -- would have been more fun for baseball, for him, for everyone.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.