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Thursday, September 9, 2004
Updated: September 18, 2:42 AM ET
Don't bank on 756 homers

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

They'll never file this one under Breaking Developments, but: The only thing that will stop Barry Bonds is Bonds.

That may be the good news; it may be the bad news. Shoot, it may not even be news until Bonds says it is, and that could take a while yet.

Barry Bonds
The day will come, Barry Bonds promises, that the Giants slugger will stop swinging for the fences. Just when, remains a mystery.
With the 40-year-old outfielder having joined the 700 Club, ascending a power peak that only two others in baseball history have scaled, it's at least worth remembering -- if only for a minute or two -- that the one thing Bonds possesses in greater exponential form than strength is timing. How he deploys that timing, as he tracks down first Babe Ruth and then Henry Aaron, could prove the most fascinating aspect of the end of his career.

Healthy, intact, motivated, Bonds is as close to a sure bet to surpass Aaron's total of 755 career home runs as one can achieve. He already has proved that the march of chronology affects him with perhaps half the impact it does others who slide past, say, the age of 35 in baseball. And through the walking-on-nails ordeal of the BALCO scandal, Bonds has asserted once again that he is a master of concentration.

The man can hit home runs with people despising him, adoring him, openly questioning him, attempting to exonerate him. It makes no difference: Bonds gets in the zone and stays there.

But all of this is separate and apart from the question of what Bonds wants to do. And, frankly, that's a good one -- if only because Bonds himself doesn't appear yet to have decided.

The long and short of it, in terms of the longball and history, is simple arithmetic progression. Bonds already has said he'll play for the San Francisco Giants in 2005, and based upon any loose interpretation of his current production pace, he will surpass Ruth's 714 total during that season and go on to finish tantalizingly close to Aaron's hallowed ground.

Planning for the future
If marketing plans are a tell-tale sign, it's clear that Barry Bonds may not be planning to retire anytime soon and could continue his assault on Hank Aaron's home run record beyond next season.

Jeff Bernstein, Bonds' marketing agent and managing director of sports marketing firm Pro Access, told ESPN.com that his company is focusing on securing corporate opportunities for Bonds as he begins his assault on the record of Aaron's mark of 755 homers.

"We expect to have everything in place from 715 (when he would pass Babe Ruth's mark) through to 756," Bernstein said.

Fans can purchase the standard hats, T-shirts and pennants to commemorate Bonds' 700th blast. The fact that Bonds is unlikely to hit No. 715 this year makes it easier to sell merchandise again when he passes Ruth, Bernstein said.

"People probably have until next spring to wear the No. 700 shirt," Bernstein said. "If it were May, sales would probably be affected."

Bernstein noted that Bonds plans to continue licensing and marketing products on his own next year. Before the season, Bonds became the first player to opt out the MLB Players Association's group licensing agreement, which aggregates the names and likenesses of players for purchase by licensees. As a result, he is not featured in MLBPA-licensed products such as trading cards, video games and fantasy games.

"It's hard to imagine both parties coming together this year if they didn't last year," Bernstein said. "It's not about the money. It's more about being able to control his likeness and decide what he does and doesn't want to do."

-- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com
It's what comes after that is so intriguing. Earlier this summer, Bonds said there was "probably a good chance" that he would play in 2006, slightly contradicting what he'd said previously during a trip to New York, when the slugger left open the question of just walking away after the '05 season no matter how close he was to any record.

And on the third hand, of course, is Bonds' own reckoning that he doesn't believe half the things he says. So which is it?

There's a money issue here striding alongside the statistical goddery, an appropriate rider clause on the trajectory of a modern athlete. When Bonds speaks of 2006, he makes it clear that he would like the Giants to go ahead and guarantee that year on his contract, which is worth $18 million.

No guarantee, no play? No play, no record? No record, no fan-frenzy windfall for a San Francisco organization whose ballpark no longer is the brand-spankingest-new on the block? You can connect the dots for yourself: The pressure on the Giants is enormous to make good on Bonds' contract, and the sooner the better, if they plan to have him in their uniform when the big day comes.

But there is one area yet unexplored, and it's the one that may ultimately suggest to what degree Bonds thinks or cares about the concept of legacy and how it is shaped. Through his sometimes clumsy (some would say pointedly arrogant) comments on the subject, Bonds has strongly suggested that while he'd have no problem leaving Ruth in the dust, he considers Henry Aaron's mark to be something else again.

Might Bonds blow past Ruth but stop short of Aaron? On some levels, the thought is inconceivable; baseball records were always made to be broken. Aaron's reputation and personal legacy, moreover, stand virtually no chance of being diminished by having his home-run mark surpassed, especially in light of the sometimes brutal and hateful conditions under which Henry achieved his greatness.

But Aaron's record, no matter the racial climate at the time he set it, is considered utterly pure. Bonds, on the other hand, has been dogged for years by suggestions of cheating -- and, more recently, strongly connected by personal and professional relationships to the epicenter of the BALCO case.

It'd be tempting to put it all together and envision Bonds walking away from the game short of Aaron's all-time mark -- just picking up and going home. Of course, Bonds took down the 660 homer total of his godfather and idol, Willie Mays, and as much as Barry loves Willie, he never once looked back. The question now is strictly the one that asks when Barry Bonds will stop Barry Bonds. Heaven knows no one else can.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com