The record, the individual and the team

O.K, I'll admit it. I didn't want Barry Bonds to hit 70 home runs, and certainly not any more than that.

Even those cute daughters of his holding up their little signs saying, "Pitch to my Daddy" didn't move me.

I'm a Cardinals fan. All good fans of a team want a record to stay in the family, particularly if the family member is still around. It doesn't mean we don't like the pursuer - though admittedly there would have been others easier to pull for than Bonds - it just means we're loyal to our own. So I'll admire the achievement without being glad it happened.

When Mark McGwire set the standard with a then-incredible 70 in 1998, it looked like a record that would last a long time. Appearances can be deceiving.

McGwire had his best game of a dismal season Thursday, the day Bonds hit No. 70. He homered and drove in five runs. While pitchers walked Bonds continuously in recent days, McGwire's stock had fallen to the point that pitchers were walking other Cardinal batters so they could face him instead.

With painful irony, McGwire struck out four times Friday night as Bonds was blasting past him with 71 and 72. At age 38, the injury-prone McGwire may be on his last legs. (It's his knee that's actually the problem.) That makes the timing of his record's fall all the more poignant.

But here's the interesting thing: McGwire has had two sub-par years in 2000 and 2001. The Cardinals as a team have done well, making it to the playoffs both times. When McGwire was at his peak, the Cardinals were also-rans.

A tension has always existed between individual and team performance in sports. The superior performer can actually affect the chemistry of a team, with everybody waiting around for him to produce, to do it all on his own. Some accused Cardinals management in 98 and 99 of not spending enough to build a better team around McGwire since the crowds kept coming anyway.

And there are those - dare I mention Bonds as one of them? - whose teammates have considered over time to be more interested in individual accolades than the good of the team. No San Francisco teammate stepped on to the field to congratulate Bonds when he hit his 500th career homer back in April, though the Giants made up for that snub in recent days with celebratory greetings. And Bonds, to his credit, didn't seem eager to bask in the afterglow of 71 and 72 because the Giants lost, their playoff hopes dashed.

Some baseball purists recoiled at the attention on McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, saying it missed the point that baseball is a team sport. Both men acknowledged that repeatedly during their memorable summer-long chase of Roger Maris' now seemingly modest single-season record of 61 home runs.

Yet there comes a point when many baseball fans want to see monumental individual achievement, even at the expense of their own teams. McGwire and Sosa both experienced it on the road when fans of other teams cheered them on, many coming to the ballpark solely for the purpose of seeing them hit one out. They would boo home team pitchers for not grooving them strikes.

That desire to witness a record-breaking moment took an even more pronounced twist last week when Houston Astro fans - their team battling for a division title - booed their pitchers for trying to win games by pitching around Bonds. Yes, a couple of times they went too far, as when they walked him intentionally when the Giants already had an 8-1 lead. But Houston players will likely remember that many of their fans seemed to prefer a Bonds record to an Astros division title.

Can't hold it against them, I suppose. Especially if you're a Cardinal fan. Bonds matched and passed the record, but while the Houston fans weren't looking, the Cardinals slipped into first place and the Giants fell out of the wild card race.

Team performance does have its consolations.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. E-mail him at lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

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