Tuesday, July 31, 2007

From Aaron to Bonds

Any day now baseball will have a new home run king. The transition from Henry Aaron to Barry Bonds is the transition to a changed country.

As is well-known, Aaron faced harrassment and death threats as he pursued what was still the Babe's record. You could see the relief in his face as he threw off the two fans who were chasing him around the basepaths when he hit #715. Part of what motivated him to go for the record was the belief that he could use the resulting platform to advance the civil-rights agenda.

For Bonds, of course, it is a different time. A spoiled athlete, embittered at the media who make his riches possible, still in surly denial about his drug-tainted pursuit of Aaron. Aaron in some ways was the final chapter of the Jackie Robinson book - the greatest record in all of North American sport now possessed by a black man. A significant portion of white America didn't take kindly to it, as they had not taken kindly to baseball integration to begin with.

But Bonds lives in the world Robinson and Aaron built. That he is free to be a jackass, like people of any other race, is perhaps a sign of the full normalization of race relations. Black people, and black athletes in particular, are not simply noble martyrs, or mere victims. They run the full gamut of humanity, just like anyone else. Closing the book on the era of the black athlete as icon is a healthy development in American society.

It is also worth noting that on the night Aaron broke Ruth's record, many of the seats were empty. The contrast with today's sellout crowds in San Francisco and the boats out in the Bay hoping to snag the record-breaking shot testify to the growth both in the popularity of sport and the huge commercialization of sports memorabilia. It is a changed world in many ways, if only Barry Bonds knew it.


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