SAN FRANCISCO - This was the milestone he said he didn't want, the one that he would have liked to have skipped on his way to the two he does want.
Mathematics, though, doesn't work that way, so Barry Lamar Bonds had to catch and pass Willie Mays before he could get to Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron.
So he did, the teensiest bit grudgingly, cracking a pitch from the suitably anonymous Ben Ford into the Cove in a victory over the Brewers that meant essentially nothing except to the people that take their baseball in Bonds-size helpings.
So now, and we say this very advisedly, comes the hard part.
He likes to speak of "one big one a year," so if he plans to catch Ruth, he has another 54 to hit, although "one big one a year" means he has all next year to take care of that, and 2006 for Aaron.
Of course, to catch Aaron, he has to hit 96 homers after his 39th birthday, and the only person to do that was Darrell Evans.
In short, this all can be done, but the piano is getting heavier, and the mountain road is getting steeper.
We make this point at considerable risk, knowing what we know about the Man as Myth. Ignoring for purposes of this discussion the hell-hound shrieks of the army of amateur chemists who want an asterisk belt-sanded onto his forehead, we note that in whatever state you choose to view him, he still has had three of the greatest seasons in baseball history at ages 37, 38 and 39. This is even more amazing when you realize that in the 128-year history of the game, less than one-quarter of one percent of all major-league non-pitchers (some 16,000-plus) even played at age 37, let alone played well.
The legacy discussion can be held in abeyance for another time. We are talking about Bonds and Ruth, and cautioning patience in Bonds' pursuit of 715. It could take all year, and then some.
He might chase Ruth in 2004 - and chase him hard - but passing him seems a slightly longer shot than even beating McGwire in 2001. He will, after all, be Forty Freakin' Years Old on July 24, and that's a number to be feared as much as respected.
Forty is when Aaron stopped being Aaron, and when Williams entered his final descent into retirement, and when Mays fell below the 20-homer mark for the first time since the service years of 1952 and '53. Forty is hard business.
Still, this gives us a chance, perhaps the last chance, to see Bonds as Bonds, rather than Bonds as Number. It's better to think that Ruth isn't going to be caught in 2004, to put him out of your minds and consider Bonds not as a future historical artifact, but as the game's pre-eminent contemporary force, a great player pursuing nothing more than additional excellence.
Because in '05, Bonds' eyes, wrists, torso and legs willing, you'll have all the numbers you can eat.
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