KING BARRY!

Don’t believe everything you read. They say that about movie stars, politicians, advertisements, and now they can say it about the record books of baseball, where the all-time home run leader, as of Tuesday night – and for the foreseeable future – reads: Barry Lamar Bonds.

He took his swing in the fifth inning, he made solid contact, he watched the ball go, and he ran around the bases as he had 755 times before. When he reached home, when he touched the plate, he threw his hands to the sky and the standings officially flipped: Hank Aaron became No. 2, and Bonds was No. 1. He had what he wanted, what allegedly he has wanted for years, what allegedly was behind his diving into needles and pills and creams and steroids.

He got the spotlight back on him.

And irony is not a strong enough word.

For here was a guy who supposedly couldn’t stand to watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hogging all that attention in 1998 – and he couldn’t stand it why? Because he suspected they were doing it artificially, on the juice.

So Bonds allegedly got his own juice. Never mind the cheering crowds at AT&T Field on Tuesday night or the exciting PA announcer or Barry’s brief thanks to the fans, his family and his teammates when handed a microphone. And now people in 2007 watch him with the same jaundiced eye that he may have cast on 1998.

The disconnect between the expected results of an event and the actual results of that event. That’s irony. And as Bonds became the All-Time Home Run King of Baseball, rarely has irony seen such a huge stage. The pitch came off Washington’s Mike Bacsik. The ball traveled 435 feet. That much we can say is fact.

But don’t believe everything you read.

The stage is set

Instead, think of Tuesday night as a play. Think about all the things that are on the stage when No. 756 goes into the seats.

There’s Bonds, in the center, making his historic swing.

Stage left, we see some metal bars, and behind them sits Greg Anderson, a personal trainer and convicted steroids peddler who is in jail for refusing to testify about his good pal and biggest client … Bonds.

Stage right, behind a desk, is a former senator named George Mitchell, who is conducting a wide-scale investigation of baseball steroid abuse, with a key target being … Bonds.

Downstage, in front of file cabinets, is a federal grand jury investigating possible perjury committed by … Bonds.

Upstage, before flashing bulbs, is Kimberly Bell, a former mistress who says she will pose nude for Playboy and share some secrets of her ex-lover … Bonds.

Offstage is an empty seat, where Aaron, one of the most respected figures in baseball history, refuses to sit – he instead appeared Tuesday night via a recorded video message – rather than see his record taken by … Bonds.

And down in the audience, front row, center seat, is an empty space reserved for the baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, whose body was on hand for the record-tying home run Saturday night, but whose heart clearly was not in it. Selig didn’t bother to show for the event Tuesday night. He has clearly had his fill of … Bonds.

Throw in a huge chorus of fans, the cheering ones in San Francisco and the booing ones around the rest of the country, toss in the players on the field who seemed less than thrilled with the whole event, mix that all together, and you have one amazing show. Unfortunately, it more resembles a circus.

And in many ways, that is what this has become.

Tarnished legacy

But there are a few things this is not. It is not about race. It is not about personality. If you cannot get past those stumbling blocks on such an important issue, you don’t deserve to be discussing it. You really don’t. The man Bonds surpassed for the home run mark was black. The next guys most likely to catch him are black or Dominican American. This is not white versus black. Nor is it about being a jerk. Pete Rose was hardly a saint. Ted Williams was grumpy. Ty Cobb was a nasty cuss. So what? Nobody ever challenged their baseball marks.

Bonds will be challenged and may never stop being challenged. He is not the only one alleged to have taken steroids – only the most famous, most accomplished and still active. He was a great baseball player before all this – no one should dispute that – but when you watch a guy get bigger, stronger, more powerful and more productive AFTER his 34th birthday, when you watch him hit 24 more homers in one season than he has ever hit in a season in his life – and he’s 37 – when you watch him grow abnormally large, when you read a book that paints him as a human pharmacological experiment, when he never challenges that book as truth, not in court, not with a lawsuit, well, you have no choice but to challenge him in your mind. Your conscience tells you, too.

So does history.

I attended the Olympic Games of 1988, when Carl Lewis, considered by many to be the fastest man in the world, lost the 100-meter final to his Canadian rival Ben Johnson. They stood on the podium, Lewis a few inches lower, and while he tried to be positive, you could almost see the glassy disbelief in his eyes, a desire to scream out, “This can’t be right.”

A few days later, there was proof. Johnson was found guilty of steroid use. Of course, at the time, like Bonds, he insisted he was clean, he made vague claims about someone sneaking something into his water bottle.

But in the years that followed, he admitted he lied. So did his coach, Charlie Francis, who said the sport was rife with steroid users.

Now here we are nearly 20 years later, and another guy is smiling and waving and claiming a crown, and the man who may have given him banned substances sits in a jail cell, saying nothing.

You wonder if the only difference between Ben Johnson and Barry Bonds is the timing of a urine test and the tight lips of a trainer.

You can see it, but you don’t have to believe it. We saw Ben Johnson. We saw the Tour de France. We saw games refereed by Tim Donaghy. And now we have seen Bonds raise his hands and take credit as the new home run king. But just because something happened doesn’t mean we know all that is behind it.

You can only say this about Barry Bonds, this morning, tomorrow morning, and as he trots around the bases from now until the day he retires: There goes a hell of a baseball player, who may have done a hell of a thing to his sport.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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