- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Barry Bonds circles the bases these days to the sound of one hand clapping … and one knee creaking. The Shambino is just a homer away from 714 — Babe Ruth’s address — but the only people outside of McCovey Cove who seem to care are the ones at ESPN, his own private Paraguay. Barry’s their boy. To the bitter end.

And rarely has the pursuit of a record left such a sour taste. Indeed, Bonds’ growing home run total elicits about the same response from the masses as that tote board in New York City, the one that keeps track of the national debt. Baseball may have given Barry BALCO a free pass, but in the court of public opinion he’s already been affixed with the Scarlet Asterisk.

Yes, Bonds is poised to pass Ruth on the career homer list — and may eventually overtake all-time leader Hank Aaron. But if and when he does cross the finish line, it will be as a latter-day Rosie Ruiz, not as the greatest slugger in hardball history. That’s the punishment that awaits him (other than the eternal damnation, that is).

“It’s draining,” Bonds says of his daily ordeal — the boos, the “syringes” tossed in his path, the effort it takes, after three knee surgeries and 20 seasons, simply to play the game. But it’s hard to feel sympathetic toward a player who’s viewed as synthetic, who never would have scaled these heights (say the authors of “Game of Shadows”) if he hadn’t taken every performance-enhancing drug but Babe in a Bottle.

The magnitude of this fraud can be expressed in a few numbers. From 1986 to 1998, Barry averaged a homer every 16.1 at bats. Since then, in defiance of all anatomical logic, he has averaged a homer every 8.6 at bats. What exactly does this mean? It means that, thanks to the wonders of “flaxseed oil” and assorted other magic elixirs, he has hit 142 more homers than he would have (at his previous rate). It means that instead of closing in on Harmon Killebrew (573) right now — with Frank Robinson (586) just ahead — he’s drawing a bead on the Sultan of Swat.

Killebrew, Robinson — that’s the company a slugger of Bonds’ ilk should be keeping. After all, only three times before the age of 36 did Barry hit more than 40 homers in a season (and never did he hit more than 46). And Harmon and Frank, let’s not forget, both belted No. 500 at an earlier age than Bonds. Alas, they didn’t have the services of a “personal trainer” to help them reverse the aging process. Instead of “the cream” and “the clear,” all they had was Jim Beam and beer.

Barry’s procession this season has been anything but triumphal. Some will say there’s justice in that. His Giants are in last place in the National League West, he’s on a pedestrian 26-homer, 63-RBI pace and his last four dingers have come in losses. Pitchers are still walking him a bunch, though — or is it his memory they’re putting on base? Hard to tell.

During batting practice recently, a foul ball caromed, “Three Stooges”-like, off Bonds’ cranium. The only thing missing was the sound of birds chirping. Too bad it didn’t happen about seven years ago; it might have knocked some sense into him. (It did, however, confirm suspicions that Barry is one of the all-time hardheads.)

Sunday in Philadelphia, after the fans had hounded him all weekend, Bonds sent No. 713 far into the night. “A Ruthian blast,” the Philly Inquirer called it. And it was, too — in every respect. The trajectory was reminiscent of one Ruth (Babe), and the jog around the bases was reminiscent of another Ruth (Bader Ginsberg).

The souvenir wound up in the hands of a serviceman, based in New Jersey, who expects to be summoned soon to Iraq. Bonds rebuffed Carlos Oliveras’ request to autograph the ball, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, but did stand still long enough to have his picture taken with him. Afterward, Mr. Congeniality claimed the Philly crowds really weren’t that ferocious. “Dodger Stadium is worse,” he said.

The Shambino gets to play his next seven games in the warm embrace of SBC Park. Perhaps he’ll catch Ruth there. The price will have been steep, though. Not only has he lost the respect of many fans — his Q Rating is somewhere between the Duke lacrosse team’s and Osama bin Laden’s — he’s also lost any chance of being appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.

And here’s more good news: Through Sunday’s game, Bonds’ lifetime batting average had dropped to .2997284.

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