Victim of 756 shouldn’t fear

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We are living 1998 all over again, only this time even worse.

Then, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa committed fraud in their chase of Roger Maris‘ single-season home run record. Then, at least, we didn’t know it was a fraud.

Now, though, many are willing to overlook the fraud they know is being committed by Barry Bonds. Fans in San Diego booed Bonds in each plate appearance of that series — until, that is, he hit the home run that tied Hank Aaron’s career record of 755 on Saturday night.

Many fans stood and cheered then, just as they did in the summer of 1998.

That summer, everyone was blissfully ignorant. They didn’t know that McGwire and Sosa, unlike the man whose record they were trying to break, used performance-enhancing substances banned by baseball.

This time, the fans were not blissfully ignorant, just simply fatigued, helpless and confused.

Fatigued by the entire steroids debate, which unfortunately still is in the early stages. Every year a McGwire or Bonds or other suspected abuser comes up on the Hall of Fame ballot, the debate will renew — perhaps for another 20 years.

Helpless because they know what they are watching — and some of what they watched over the past 20 years or so — is a deception.

Confused about who and what to believe when the media they rely on to make sense of the steroid controversy gets it wrong, even now.

They hear commentators and read writers who claim there is no proof Bonds took steroids, yet Bonds himself testified before a federal grand jury that he took “the cream” and “the clear” supplied by BALCO Labs. Bonds, of course, said he didn’t know they were steroids, that he believed they were the supplement flaxseed oil and an arthritis balm.

BALCO boss Victor Conte went to jail for selling the cream and the clear, so I think we can say with certainty they were illegal performance-enhancing substances.

And repeated in newspapers and on the airwaves, over and over, is the argument that there were no rules against steroid use in baseball until 2003. How, it is said, can Bonds be penalized if he wasn’t breaking any rules?

This lie has been spoken and written so much it is now gospel.

But steroid use was banned in baseball in 1991 when commissioner Fay Vincent issued the following memorandum to all clubs after Congress increased the penalties for steroid possession: “The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players or personnel is strictly prohibited. … This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs … including steroids.”

So whatever embrace of Bonds and the record exists — at least outside of San Francisco, where fans refuse to entertain the notion they invested so much money and emotion in a cheat — is a reluctant embrace.

The Washington Nationals join the party tonight, when they open a four-game series in San Francisco that sets the stage for a Nats pitcher to give up the record-breaking homer.

Rookie left-hander John Lannan, whom Bonds never has faced, goes tonight. Tomorrow brings another left-hander, Mike Bacsik, who has held Bonds hitless in two official at-bats and once hit him with a pitch. Tim Redding is scheduled to pitch Wednesday, and Bonds is 1-for-5 against him with a double and two walks. Last into the spotlight is rookie Joel Hanrahan, who has never faced Bonds.

It would be nice if, while the world is watching, the Nationals keep Bonds in the ballpark, showing everyone the heart — and, yes, talent — of this team that has proved a lot of people wrong, yours truly included.

But even if one of these pitchers gives it up, he won’t live in infamy. He will not be remembered as long as other pitchers who surrendered record-breaking home runs.

Bonds‘ record-breaking homer will not be as meaningful as when Al Downing, pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, gave up No. 715 to Aaron in 1974, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.

Here it is, 33 years later, and Downing, a good major league pitcher, is forever linked to the Aaron home run.

Many who watched Aaron or lived through that time remember not only that Downing gave up the record breaker but that Jack Billingham surrendered No. 714.

And go back to 1961: Tracy Stallard’s claim to fame is that he threw the pitch that Maris hit for No. 61, breaking Ruth’s single-season mark. Those who go that far back may recall Jack Fisher gave up No. 60.

Years from now, no one but Clay Hensley and his family and friends will remember that the Padres pitcher gave up No. 755 to Bonds. Few will remember if Lannan, Bacsik, Redding or Hanrahan serves up the record-breaker to Bonds because he so cheapened the record.

Who gave up No. 62 to McGwire? Few remember it was Steve Trachsel, who said he rarely hears about it anymore.

“I went five or six years without talking about it,” Trachsel told SI.com. “It’s not something that even comes up much anymore. I think, probably, the amount of time between Maris and Mark made it a bigger deal.”

Who gave up No. 71 to Bonds when he broke McGwire’s single-season mark of 70? Chan Ho Park, though not many would know without looking it up.

What they will remember about Bonds and 755 is the tension and controversy. The record itself will be overshadowed by the indictment of Bonds on perjury and income tax evasion charges, which likely will come before the end of the year. Then there will be the Mitchell steroid probe and whatever steps commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig takes in light of those developments.

Who will give up No. 756? Who will care?

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