Sam Donnellon | Thanks, Barry, for being baseball's savior

Posted: July 19, 2007

ALL HAIL BARRY BONDS.

Now that I have your attention, here's why: A lot of good has come about during his charge toward baseball's all-time home run record. In truth, he's been an inadvertent conduit for positive change since he chopped down Mark McGwire's then 3-year-old home run record in 2001.

Barry wasn't any better-liked back then than he is now. What was unnerving, though, was how we treated him even then. We had all done such a nice job of ignoring the andro, of helping McGwire mask that he was, for the most part, a surly sort, and here came Barry, just as surly.

Why was McGwire given a free pass and Barry wasn't?

Because he didn't fake it as well as McGwire?

Inquiring minds wanted to know.

The media - myself included - must take a hard look at whether race plays into how it portrays its icons.

Here's another thing Barry did for us that year, a gift that keeps on giving: The home run lost value as if it were the currency of an economy out of control. Sure, the sports networks still highlight the bombs, and the home run derby still brings out the very worst in Chris Berman. But to its everlasting credit, ESPN has begun to accentuate the aspects of baseball that its more devoted fans embrace.

"Web gems," anyone?

Can't get enough of them myself.

Playing the game correctly is in vogue again. Barry, who in his youth had some run-ins with Jim Leyland over such matters, has said so himself. Often.

Suddenly, being a good teammate is, too. Barry, who in his youth had some issues with Leyland over such matters, has said so himself. Often.

(Leyland, who watched his pitchers literally throw away the World Series last October, said so, too. Often.)

Here's another positive offshoot: Remember when Vince Coleman had to be told who Jackie Robinson was? The guys today, with Bonds at the forefront, connect the dots. Bonds may say he doesn't care about his Hall of Fame status, but he clearly enjoys his connection to baseball's history. You think it's any coincidence that Willie Mays and his 660 home runs have been rediscovered? That he is again being included into the debates over best player ever, or best living player?

It was only a couple of years ago that debate, with the passing of each man, revolved around Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. But with Bonds beating the drum for his godfather over the last 5 years, and the " Say Hey Kid" taking a more public role recently, young fans are learning volumes about the former Giants star.

Mays stole bases, played centerfield with abandon, hit for average and hit for power. Had his home parks been less cavernous than the Polo Grounds or less windy than Candlestick Park, it is also likely that he may be the man Bonds would be now chasing, not Henry Aaron.

Either way, it's great to have Willie back in the debate, back in the game, sitting alongside Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr.

Barry opened that up, or helped to.

He's also given the Babe a shot of adrenaline. In a book titled "The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs," author Bill Jenkinson charted at least 40 balls hit by Babe Ruth in 1921 that would have cleared any fence existing in baseball today. According to Jenkinson, Ruth would have amassed about 1,150 dingers over his 22-year career had he played with today's dimensions, rules, and number of games.

Jenkinson's book is a nice example of product placement. Bonds is on the cusp of catching Aaron's mark of 755, and nothing breathes life into baseball's past the way a new record does. A whole generation knows so much more about Lou Gehrig, thanks to Cal Ripken Jr. And the Maris family is and should be eternally grateful to McGwire and Sammy Sosa for giving the public a second chance to get to know and like Roger.

Do we like him any less with that black cloud now draped over that 1998 season? Hardly. Aaron's achievement amid all that hate in the early 1970s has already been told to a new audience, and is likely to gain legs, not lose them, as Bonds surpasses 755.

So all hail Barry. Every surly and likely altered ounce of him.

For those who say baseball makes strange bedfellows, well there goes your proof. *

Send e-mail to

donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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