For baseball fans, his every at-bat is a moment laced with contradiction. At games away from home, he often steps to the plate to a chorus of boos, yet he's been named the National League's most valuable player no fewer than seven times. He's been accused of pumping up his performance with drugs, yet he's never tested positive for any banned substance.
Now that Barry Bonds has tied baseball icon Babe Ruth in career home runs, blasting No. 714 into the right-center stands in Oakland on Saturday afternoon, his achievement has produced that same mixed message: a standing ovation tempered by fans' private doubts, an occasion for delirium that arrives, finally, with a shrug.
"It's an amazing feat, but we'll never know if he could have done it without drugs," says Catherine Bergstrom of San Jose, Calif., a lifetime San Francisco Giants fan. For her, the doubt makes the feat less spectacular.
For Bonds's critics and his defenders, the long-awaited home run has been less about celebration and more about renewed introspection over the game of baseball and the values of all those - players, team owners, media, and fans - involved in it. Record-smashing seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s brought major league baseball out of a post-player-strike slump, but by last year allegations of rampant steroid use by players were roiling the sport.
"It's easy to figure why no one wanted to question [steroid allegations]," says Peter Robey, director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "The players had a role. The media let it go undetected. Major league baseball as a whole, and individual [team] owners and doctors and trainers and the fans as well, all have some responsibility in what was allowed to happen."
Ultimately, he says, America's pervasive - and wrongheaded - ethic of winning at all costs is what fuels cheating and "makes guys risk health and reputation for the sake of being able to chase records."
At a recent Giants game, several fans brought a giant sign made of connecting bedsheets running almost the length of the field. It said, "Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer. Aaron did it with class. How did YOU do it?"
Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Barry - a sports radio host - feels differently. "He says he never knowingly used steroids and until proven otherwise, I believe him," he says. Barry notes that professional sports trainers for decades introduced athletes - including himself - to new vitamin and supplement regimens. (Bonds's personal trainer, Greg Anderson, pleaded guilty to his own role in a steroid distribution ring.)
"Bonds has never tested positive for anything illegal ... I don't think he would knowingly do that and suffer the loss of respect," says Barry.
In recent books, articles, congressional, and federal grand-jury investigations, Bonds has been linked to the use of substances that build the muscles and coordination, accounting for both the high number and monster-size of his home runs into the highest decks of major league stadiums. Bonds is reported to have testified before a grand jury that he never knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball in March launched its own investigation into alleged steroid use by Bonds and other players.
In February, two San Francisco Chronicle reporters wrote the book "Game of Shadows" about Bonds's alleged steroid use.
Peter Keating, author of "Dingers! A short history of the Long Ball" and an ESPN sports columnist, says the controversy surrounding the slugger has been tragic because "Barry Bonds was one of the most talented athletes of his generation."
When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got into a home- run duel in 1998 pursuing Roger Maris's single-season home-run record of 61, "[Bonds] looked over his shoulder at the adulation being heaped on McGwire and Sosa and decided to make his own run for the home-run record," says Mr. Keating. "That year [Bonds] reached 400 home runs and 400 steals, something no one had ever done. But ... only a few press showed up because they were all covering Sosa and McGwire. It was killing him," he says.
Bonds now begins his assault on the all-time home-run record of Hank Aaron, who went on to hit 755 homers.
Keating, for his part, is celebrating Ruth's and Aaron's feats. "We should appreciate just how amazing a total Aaron's record of 755 is," he says. "He did it under incredible pressure in an era of segregation, a black man chasing the white man's record. And he was only 6 feet tall, 180 pounds."