By Janie McCauley
SAN FRANCISCO - Baseball's home run record ranks as the most prized in all of American sports, coming with a title that reflects its regality.
Is Barry Bonds so worthy?
Babe Ruth was a true Home Run King, reaching the feat in a fashion fit for the excesses of the Roaring Twenties - a big-swinging, big-eating, big-drinking lovable slugger who was among the country's first sports heroes.
His mark spanned the decades and different social attitudes until 1974. The man who broke it did so during a new era in baseball, while the issue of race still smoldered after the tumultuous 1960s.
To this day, Hank Aaron is respected more than adored as his reign nears its end. Bonds approaches the Hammer's record of 755 shrouded in controversy.
And there are many who believe Bonds' crown will never shine so brightly.
Bonds is getting little respect or adulation from the public as he nears the mark - and for that he might have himself to blame, despite recent efforts to be more personable.
He has long been known for a prickly, selfish personality and a strained relationship with the media, which has only grown more contentious since allegations of steroid use began overshadowing his long list of accomplishments on the field.
"That's too bad, because Barry is such a great and unique talent. He should be celebrated for that," said Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the player widely thought to be the next challenger for the home run record.
But instead of being remembered for the home runs, a record seven MVP awards, 500-plus stolen bases, eight Gold Gloves, more than a dozen All-Star selections and countless other on-field achievements, the words most observers will always associate with Bonds are BALCO and steroids.
Signs in stadiums around the country scream "CHEATER" or "Barroid," and some feature nothing more than a simple asterisk - the symbol many believe should sit right next to Bonds' numbers because of the possibility he fueled his pursuit with performance-enhancing drugs. A few fans even dress up as syringes.
For Bonds, this treatment is all pretty tame - and nothing new. Fact is, the only ballpark where he's beloved is his own.
He signed a $15.8 million, one-year contract before spring training to play a 15th season for San Francisco, the club where he's long been comfortable. Bonds grew up in the Bay Area, bouncing around the clubhouse at Candlestick Park while hanging out with his late ballplayer father, Bobby, and godfather, Hall of Famer Willie Mays.
"I was born in this game," Bonds said. "I've seen a lot of things with my father and I've seen a lot. So I was tough-skinned at an early age. That's the only way I can sum it up."
Like him or not, Bonds' powerful swing, acute hand-eye coordination and ability to block out all of his off-field distractions are what his peers constantly praise.
Never an overly popular player, Bonds' reputation took a major hit in September 2003. That's when federal agents raided a little-known nutritional supplements company called the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, located in suburban Burlingame just south of San Francisco.
The raid and the ensuing investigation that forced Bonds and other players to testify in front of a grand jury turned steroids into the game's No. 1 topic.
Bonds' trainer and longtime friend, Greg Anderson, pleaded guilty to money laundering and steroid distribution and spent three months in prison.
Grand jury testimony given by Bonds and others was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle and questions of cheating could no longer be ignored.
Bonds never admitted to knowingly using illegal substances - famously saying he thought his trainer was giving him flaxseed oil and an arthritic balm - but investigators and most of the public failed to believe his story. Authorities suspected those items were actually "the clear" and "the cream," two substances connected to BALCO.
Prosecutors are investigating Bonds for perjury in connection to his grand jury testimony, and nearly three-quarters of the people polled earlier this year by ABC News and ESPN said they think Bonds knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs.
Bonds draws a negative reaction nearly every time he plays away from San Francisco's waterfront ballpark. He has even acknowledged death threats, something Aaron also confronted during his chase of the Babe.
Bonds' fellow players, for the most part, are more supportive.
Perhaps that's because he has never failed a steroids test since baseball began punishing players for using performance-enhancers. Maybe it's because they know others might have juiced, too.