It seems almost certain that San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds will pass Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time home-run king sometime this summer, but his pursuit has generated little public interest.

There may be several reasons for this, ranging from Bonds’ prickly personality to the suspicion that he may have used performance-enhancing drugs later in his career, say two Duke University professors.

Courtesy Orange County Register

“Career home runs is perhaps the most single hallowed record in American sports. And baseball itself is a sport obsessed by numbers and record-keeping more than any other,” said Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology who studies sports and society. “This makes the lack of fanfare around Bonds nearing Aaron’s mark especially puzzling, and yet also revealing about the state of American sports and society.”

Duke law professor Paul Haagen notes that fans reacted with “ambivalence and even regret” when in 1961 Roger Maris was about to break another hallowed record -- Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record. “Maris found himself vilified by sports writers and the fans of his own team as unworthy to surpass the great Bambino.”

Bonds’ antagonistic relationship with fans and sports writers, and the fact that many of his home runs were hit “in the era of the juiced player,” has led today's public to question whether it wants “such a player to become the face of its most cherished record,” said Haagen, a sports law expert. “Such deep ambivalence is to be expected when baseball is struggling to deal with the use of performance-enhancing drugs, both in its past and in the present, as one of its most visible stars pursues that record under a deep cloud of suspicion about his use of those drugs.”

Starn said Bonds’ chase of the record also lacks an appealing story line. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the single-season home-run record in 1998, fans were captivated by “its narrative of cross-racial respect and the two media-accessible sluggers.”

And when Aaron was approaching the career home-run record in the 1970s, he was “chasing one of America’s greatest sports legends, Babe Ruth, which gave a kind of special drama to his chase, as did the fact the record had stood for almost 50 years.”

“As revelations about the full extent of baseball’s steroid addiction have spread, public sentiment has turned against all those associated with its use, with even the once-loved McGwire and Sosa now fallen heroes,” Starn said.

“We want to believe that our sports heroes, like the Athenians and the Spartans of old, accomplish their great feats by dint of their own courage and skill, not from chemicals, and the allegations against Bonds take off some of the luster,” Starn said.

Starn, who teaches a course on the anthropology of sports, notes that even Major League Baseball seems uncertain about how to mark this historic occasion.

“Commissioner Bud Selig hasn’t even said whether he’ll attend games when Bonds has a chance at breaking the record. It’s as if baseball’s authorities wish the whole chase would just go away.

“This official downplaying of the chase -- one of those rare cases when a sports league avoids instead of embraces the opportunity for fanfare, fireworks and marketing opportunities -- bespeaks just how twisted up in knots baseball’s dons have become about performance-enhanching drugs.”

Source: Duke University