Barry Bonds is at 749, just six shy of Hank Aaron's mark, and once again most Americans don't really care. (Though you wouldn't know it from watching Sports Center.) Aaron has repeated that he's not going to bother attending any games once Bonds nears his mark. And Bud Selig has repeated an many occasions that he's unsure whether he'll be in the park when Bonds breaks the record. On one hand, it almost sounds like Aaron is a little bitter that Bonds is going to break his 755. But in light of the BALCO affair and the black cloud that hovers over Bonds because of it, it's hard to blame Aaron. Selig doesn't have a good excuse, however. If he's not going to actively prosecute Bonds for breaking any rules, he has no reason to stay away as Bonds nears the record. Bonds is either a cheater or he isn't. Selig, especially as commissioner, can't have it both ways. (It might be a moot point 15 years from now, however, as both Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols could pass Bonds if they stay healthy for their careers, but that's a big IF for a major league ballplayer.)
In the shadow of Bonds' feat, though, a few other ball players have been lost in the home run shuffle. Sammy Sosa, embroiled in his own steroids controversy, just passed the 600 mark, becoming only the fifth player to do so, and drastically improving his Hall of Fame chances. Ken Griffey Jr., in yet another resurgent year, is nearing 600. And Frank Thomas, who fell off the face of the planet for a number of years, is just one short of 500.
As these guys near the end of their careers, something else nears its end in the baseball world, at least according to me. These are the players I came up with as a baseball fan. I'm nearing my 20th year as more than a casual fan of baseball, something that began with the 1988 NLCS which pitted the Mets against the Dodgers. My first clear baseball memory was Kirk Gibson's pinch hit home run in Game 1 of that series, as the underdog Dodgers upset a powerful Mets ball-club. From there on I gravitated towards New York clubs like the Mets and the Yankees, and even a former NY team in the Giants. Guys like Will Clark, Howard Johnson and Don Mattingly quickly became my favorite ball players. And the Yankees, lovable losers at the time, somehow become my favorite team.
Those guys have long since retired, so it's Thomas and Griffey and Sosa whom I remember best, seeing as how their careers have coincided with my love for the game. And it's sad to see these guys nearing the end. I wouldn't be surprised if Sosa called it quits after this year, now that he's reached 600. Thomas may have another year left in him, but that's yet to be seen. Griffey, who still looks 20-something, seems to have a couple more years to go, especially now that he's ready to leave Cincinnati for a playoff contender. Guy wants a ring, and who can blame him for that?
But when they leave the game, I feel like I become, by default, one of the "old-timers," a weird thought for a 27 year old. Glavine, Biggio, Clemens, Franco...it's hard to say how many games these guys have left. And when they're gone, a year or two from now, I will have been a fan of this game for a complete generation -- 20 years. The guys I grew up watching have been almost completely replaced by a new crop of players. That's not to say I don't like A-Rod and Jeter and company -- they're great ball players. But I distinctly remember when they came up into the the league. I can't say that about Sosa or Clemens. And it's different because of that, even though I can't really explain it. I remember being all of 16 years old, and calling guys like Jeter and Posada "kids." That takes an old soul. But now, when those "kids" are nearing the end of their careers, what do you call young guys like Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun?
I guess what I'm getting at is that all loves eventually mellow out at some point. There was a time there, near the end of the steroids era and in the midst of the Yankees dynasty, when I stopped caring about baseball. Luckily, that didn't last. But this renewed love for the game is different than it used to be. It's more grounded in history and poetry, economics and and a willingness to lose three hours to a game in which very little, and everything in the world, happens. It's not quite as passionate, but it doesn't need to be. I'm committed to this game now. I'm committed to it in the same way I'm committed to other great American inventions like Bluegrass, Walk Whitman and Wisconsin Cheddar. It's part of me. And I'm happier for it.
It's alot of fun to be a fan once again, an old-timer now, who sneers at the young pups who prefer the NFL or the NBA (or, God forbid, NASCAR). Basbeall is as much America as Harry Truman or Mark Twain. No matter who it is out there on the diamond, I'm always going to have a piece of my heart out there.
It's honestly about as romantic a game as you'll ever see. And the older I get, the more I realize just how perfect it really is.