- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

MESA, Ariz. They've come to HoHoKam Park in droves, more than 12,000 of them, for a Monday afternoon spring training game of all things. They're not here to watch a couple of rookies battle it out for the fifth outfielder's job. They're not here to see a 35-year-old pitcher work on his new change-up. And they're not here to see if that new free agent first baseman really can hit like they've been told.
No, they've all decided to come here, to take a day off work or to make the trip down from the Midwest or the Bay Area for two reasons, and two reasons alone.
One is Barry Bonds.
The other is Sammy Sosa.
And they are the best (and most important) baseball players in the world right now, bar none.
There are other great players in the game today - Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Ichiro Suzuki, Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter. Here's a little secret, though: They don't matter, at least not these days.
That's because none of them has done what Bonds and Sosa have: hit home runs at a rate so staggering they are now legitimate threats to break sport's most hallowed record.
Yes, that record. The one owned by a certain Mr. Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron. Something to the tune of 755 career home runs.
Since Hammerin' Hank clubbed his way past Babe Ruth some 28 years ago, many have been touted as the next all-time home run king, only to fall off pace or to succumb to injury. Bonds (currently at 567) and Sosa (450), though, really do have a chance to do it, and none other than Aaron himself says so.
While filming a commercial together this winter (in which Aaron uses a "Field of Dreams" voice to try to convince Bonds to retire), the home run champ actually told the San Francisco Giants star he wants him to break the record.
"He said, 'I've had the record long enough. Records are meant to be broken, so if you have a chance to do it, then do it,'" Bonds said. "I didn't know what to say. I was shocked. I was shaking in my hands. It's like, really? Are you serious?"
You better believe it. One year ago, Bonds' name would never have been uttered in the same breath as Aaron's. A certain Hall of Famer and one of the best all-around players in baseball history, Bonds still wasn't considered a great home run hitter (he had never hit 50 in a single season - never mind the fact that Aaron never did in a 23-year career).
Then Barry went out and walloped 73 homers into the San Francisco night, breaking Mark McGwire's three-year-old single-season record and thrusting himself into the race for 756.
He's still 189 home runs shy of the mark, and at age 37, he may only have a few more big years left in him, but make no mistake, Bonds has a chance to surpass Aaron and Ruth.
What kind of chance? According to Stats Inc., nearly 50-50. In its annual player projections, the stat service says Bonds has an 82 percent chance to reach 700 home runs and a 43 percent chance to get to 756.
To reach Aaron, Bonds (currently in seventh place all-time) must average 37.8 homers for five years or 47.3 homers for four years. A daunting task? Perhaps. Within the realm of possibility? Absolutely.
Bonds, however, is not looking that far ahead, at least not publicly.
"First, I have to get through this year," he said. "And then there's the next year and the next.
"I'm nervous about this year, to be honest with you, because of the expectations of the media, the people. It's nerve-racking to you because you're trying to figure out how to do it again. How do you put these pieces together? I've got to put it in the back of my head and forget about it."
Giants manager Dusty Baker isn't about to let talk of 756 pervade his clubhouse.
"Leave him alone," Baker said this spring. "They were talking about Bob Horner breaking the career record and he disappeared. Then they talked about Ken Griffey Jr. breaking the career record, and then he got hurt a couple of years, and you haven't heard that one lately. Then Mark McGwire. He got hurt and you don't hear about it anymore."
Baker has a point. There have been several brief threats to Aaron's record over the past 20 years, but no one has even cracked the 600-homer plateau, let alone come close to reaching 755.
In most cases, said challenger has not been able to sustain his pace in the final years of his career. It happened to McGwire, who appeared on his way to at least 700 two years ago only to be hampered with injuries; McGwire retired after last season with a total of 583 homers.
It is for that reason that many think Sosa is more likely to reach Aaron than Bonds. Four years younger than his San Francisco counterpart and 117 homers behind, Sosa has far more baseball left in him. He has a love for the game matched by few. And maybe most importantly, he has proven he can sustain a torrid pace, averaging an astounding 60.75 homers over the past four seasons.
With that in mind, Stats Inc., says Sosa, not Bonds, has the best chance to catch Aaron - a 47 percent chance of reaching 756.
"Records are meant to be broken," Sosa said. "If I continue and maintain every year and be consistent, anything can happen."
Only four years ago, Sosa was a wild-swinging, oft-misunderstand ballplayer. He did hit 40 homers in 1996, but his batting average typically hung around .260, his strikeout total topped 170 and he seemingly never hit the ball to right field.
"I knew Sosa would hit a lot of home runs; he was just a wild swinger," said Syd Thrift, the Cubs' assistant general manager from 1991 to 1994. "The more he played, the more disciplined he got at home plate. Once he started hitting the ball to right field, he became a great player."
Sosa gained national fame in 1998 when he battled McGwire down to the wire for Roger Maris' single-season record. He finished with 66 home runs, the second-highest total ever, but four behind McGwire. Since then, he's surpassed the 60-homer plateau twice more - still finishing second in the NL both times - and has amassed a .310 batting average over his spectacular four-year run.
To get to 756, the 33-year-old Sosa would need to average 38.3 homers for eight years, 43.7 homers for seven years or 51 homers for six years.
"He's come a long way," said former Cubs teammate Mark Grace, now with the Arizona Diamondbacks. "He's probably the most dominating hitter in the game right now. He's always been kind of a streaky guy, hot and cold streaks. But now, his hot streaks are far outlasting his cold streaks. He's throwing up .300, .320 with all these home runs. That's very impressive."
What about the other contenders? They've all got question marks.
A few years ago, Griffey was widely regarded as having the best chance to pass Aaron. But Griffey's numbers have taken a serious downturn, as has his passion for the game, since he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 2000, leading Stats Inc. to predict his chances of getting to 756 a paltry 10 percent.
Rodriguez (currently at 241 homers at age 26) may be the most prolific-hitting shortstop of all time when it's all said and done, and he does have a 27 percent chance of catching Aaron, but A-Rod's got a long way to go before he can be considered a serious contender.
So that leaves just Bonds and Sosa, the two best baseball players on the planet at the present time. And apparently not the best of friends.
The un-media-friendly Bonds and the happy-go-lucky Sosa had only been minor acquaintances entering this season, but a surprising exchange of words this spring may have jump-started a potentially heated rivalry.
It all started when Bonds told Sosa he wanted him to break his single-season mark, a private conversation that Sosa relayed to the media.
When Bonds found this out, he went to the media himself, telling a reporter that Sosa was "running his mouth too much."
Sosa's reply: "Now I have to believe all the negative things said about him by his teammates are true."
The media-fueled dispute allegedly was resolved when the two superstars ran into each other at a Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant last month, though Sosa denied the chance meeting ever took place.
Thus the stage was set for the most-anticipated match-up of spring training (as ludicrous as that sounds): March 11 at Mesa's HoHoKam Park, Bonds and the Giants versus Sosa and the Cubs.
An overflow crowd gathered at the Cubs' longtime spring home, as did a throng of reporters as large as any regular-season gathering.
There was only one person missing: Bonds. As is custom with many veteran players, he was given the road game off, thereby quashing any hope of a formal reconciliation.
Sosa attempted to diffuse the situation on his own.
"Everything is under control," he said. "Really, we made something out of nowhere. And I think this is not good for baseball. I just want to put that behind me and continue playing baseball. I don't think it's a big issue."
Maybe not, but it's fairly obvious the two superstars don't have the buddy-buddy relationship McGwire and Sosa had in '98.
All the more reason to stay tuned as these two sluggers' quest for the holy grail plays out over the next few years.
On one side, you've got Barry Bonds, the great all-around player but not a fan favorite. On the other side, you've got Sammy Sosa, the lovable sidekick with a little nastiness in himself too.
Last one to 756 is a rotten egg.

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