Aaron was a baseball pioneer. He came up at a time when racism was still institutionalized. And he broke Babe Ruth's record at a time when there were still enough racist crackpots around to send him mountains of hate mail, not to mention death threats. He persevered, with his usual dignity. His career and his record are tributes to the possibilities of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Barry Bonds' record may be a tribute to something else. Therein rests the problem. The vast weight of evidence, some of it admittedly circumstantial, suggests his usage of performance-enhancing substances. This is, of course, unfortunate. He was going to the Hall of Fame when he weighed 190 pounds, before his body underwent a transformation in what amounted to early middle age.
But it's his home run record now. The 756 round-trippers are indisputable, even if the cause of all those blasts is open to doubt. The rest of us are stuck with the way we feel about it, which isn't necessarily joyous.
These kinds of things happen and not only in baseball. The history of humankind is not always a steady, linear sort of advance.
For instance, the first Republican president of the United States was Abraham Lincoln. The current Republican president is George W. Bush. The dramatic decline in presidential quality is not open to debate.
In the interests of bi-partisanship, the greatest Democratic president was very likely Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The most recent Democratic president was William Jefferson Clinton. Again, a precipitous drop in presidential quality is in evidence.
These examples are not used to rationalize Bonds' new position atop the home run record list. They merely suggest that sometimes, at the very loftiest positions, truly heroic figures can be replaced by figures of a distinctly lesser stature.
Nobody denies that Barry Bonds has tremendous talent. He didn't get that precise knowledge of the strike zone and the hand-eye coordination from the pharmacy. Those talents were present when he was a relatively slender guy. But you have a hard time being a hero to much of America when you were steady BALCO customer.
The issue of Bonds' personality, with its notable blend of surliness and petulance is, not part of this particular argument. You would prefer your record-holders to be fellows of indisputably finer human attributes. Henry Aaron keeps coming to mind. But baseball has had some truly bad dudes as its greatest stars. Ty Cobb is coming to mind.
You do not have to be nice to be great. It helps, but it is not a prerequisite. Bonds appears to use the negative energy he creates as a source of motivation and focus. But this is not anywhere near the core of the argument against him. He is who he is. There are days when he can be witty and accessible and downright charming. There just aren't enough of those days to meet the popular taste.
This is about the well-informed doubts about how his home run record was achieved. The internal integrity of the game can be found in its numbers. When there are substantial doubts about how the most visible, the most publicized record in baseball's history was achieved the kindest thing you can say about this situation is that it is highly unfortunate.
That is why Barry Bonds replacing Henry Aaron atop the career home run list is many things. But none of them is progress.