Notebook > Sports

In the shadow of the Babe

Sports | Barry Bonds needs just seven home runs this season to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time list

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

At some point, probably in April or May, major league baseball will have a huge decision to make. Sometime before the All-Star break, San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds will likely launch a ball into the outfield stands for his 715th home run. Will there be fireworks for Mr. Bonds when he passes Babe Ruth to move into second on the all-time home run list?

More than 90 years after his professional debut, Babe Ruth persists as the sport's most enduring icon and perhaps America's greatest sporting figure. Passing Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list should make 2006 a year of jubilee not just for Mr. Bonds, but baseball too. Think fireworks displays outside of the Bay Area and a full-fledged major league baseball public-relations campaign. Instead, just as baseball was beginning to enjoy what it hoped would be a post-steroids world, Mr. Bonds' accomplishment raises unwelcome questions for the sport.

What will Cooperstown, home of baseball's hall of fame, do with Mr. Bonds, who was implicated as a juicer in the BALCO steroid scandal? Is baseball truly done with steroids? In many ways, league owners and officials may simply wish that Mr. Bonds would recede into history. The slugger himself may wish for the same thing.

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He played just 14 games in 2005 after dealing with a knee injury and he'll turn 42 this July. He made waves in late February when he implied that 2006 would be his final season: "I'm tired of all of the crap going on," he told USA Today. "I want to play this year out, hopefully win, and once the season is over, go home and be with my family. Maybe then everybody can just forget about me."

Hours later, he clarified himself in an interview with MLB.com. "If my knee holds up, I'll keep on going," he said. "I'm playing psychological games with myself right now. I don't want to set myself up for disappointment if things don't work out this season. So I go back and forth. Back and forth every day. These are the things that are going through my mind. This is what I'm struggling with."

Ironically, Barry Bonds seems to struggle with how to deal with Barry Bonds just like major league baseball does.

Around the Horn

Credit U.S. speedskater Shani Davis for making Bryant Gumbel seem even more foolish. Mr. Gumbel railed against the Winter Olympics on his HBO show, saying, "So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention." That was before Mr. Davis won gold in the 1,000 meters to become the first African-American ever to win an individual event at the Winter Games. But Mr. Davis also embarrassed himself in a post-race interview so terse and confrontational that the NBC reporter asked him if he was angry.

Another setback for Dolphins running back Ricky Williams is coming down the pipe-or perhaps from the pipe. League sources told the Miami Herald that Mr. Williams has failed another drug test, meaning the former Heisman Trophy winner may have to sit out the entire 2006 season. In the past, Mr. Williams has tested positive for marijuana and admitted that a failed drug test helped spur his abrupt, though temporary, retirement from football in July 2004. Mr. Williams is appealing the results of the test.

Doubles tennis may have a new star with an old name. Jonas Bjorkman teamed with 47-year-old tennis icon John McEnroe to win the doubles title at the SAP open on Feb. 19. "It's nice," said a beaming Mr. McEnroe. "I can't deny that it's nice." Mr. McEnroe has always been a strong doubles player-but the two-man game seems perfect for hiding his aging legs and showcasing his timeless serve.

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