An AP-AOL Sports poll released Thursday shows that only one-third of Americans call themselves fans of professional baseball — about the level of support for the last decade, but lower than 1990.
And they see another problem competing with steroids: stratospheric salaries.
Brandon Inge of the World Series-bound Detroit Tigers was surprised to hear that only 32 percent of Americans consider themselves fans.
"That sounds a little low to me," the third baseman said. "It's America's pastime."
So is rooting against Bonds, it appears. The poll showed 48 percent of fans want the San Francisco star to fall short of Aaron's mark; 33 percent would like Bonds to break it and another 16 percent said they didn't care.
Bonds has hit 734 homers and is closing in on Aaron's total of 755. Shadowed by steroid allegations and slowed by injuries, Bonds homered 26 times this season.
"It saddens me," said Bonds' agent, Jeff Borris. "I think true baseball fans who know and understand everything Barry has done to get to this point should be pulling for him.
"They should feel fortunate that they'll have the opportunity to see him break probably the most hallowed record in sports," he said.
Tigers pitcher Jamie Walker understood the public's view of Bonds.
"That sounds about right. People have their opinions. If they're singling out Barry Bonds, they could look at a lot of guys over the last 15 years. Nobody wants to see some old records get broken, but they didn't do steroid testing back then," he said.
Young adults, age 18 to 29, were more likely than those 40 and over to want Bonds to break the record. White fans rooted against Bonds more than minorities, and fans who think Major League Baseball is not doing enough about steroids were more likely to hope Bonds comes up short.
Alex Bast, a 24-year-old fan wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey and Tigers hat at Busch Stadium during the NL championship series, wants Bonds to fall shy.
"I personally hope he doesn't break the record," he said. "I just think that there's kind of too much of a cloud of uncertainty about him and the steroid issue, that it would be good for baseball if he didn't break it to kind of keep that number sacred."
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, when Babe Ruth still held the single-season and career homer records, there was no doubt that baseball was the No. 1 sport in America. Those numbers have eroded, too.
According to the poll, more Americans 35 years and older than under 35 considered themselves baseball fans. Whites were more likely than minorities to put themselves in that category.
Yet overall, about two-thirds of Americans did not regard themselves as fans.
"There's so many sports on the menu now," New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. "You ask 10, 20, 30 years ago, it was a different menu. There's other sports out there now, so I can fully understand. People like doing other things.
"That being said, I still think baseball has never been more popular," he said. "And I say that because look at the attendance."
MLB games this season drew more than 75 million people for the first time.
"The interest is there, it's just I think there's so many other distractions and interests today for kids, for children," Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. "Kids probably don't have the same interest that we did when we were kids because there's more alternatives."
Many others found something else troubling — salaries. Major league players made an average of nearly $3 million this season.
Among all Americans, 28 percent said salaries were the top problem in baseball, 21 percent said it was the high cost of attending games and 19 percent said it was players using steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.
That's a change from an AP-AOL Sports poll taken in April 2005, when 27 percent picked banned substances as baseball's No. 1 problem. Among fans, salaries, the cost of attending games and steroids were in close competition as the top problem.
Those over 35 years old and whites were more likely than younger adults and minorities to say players made too money.
The survey found 58 percent of fans said they cared "a lot" whether players were using steroids and performance-enhancing drugs — that's slightly lower than in AP-AOL Sports polls taken in April 2005 and April 2006.
Fans who follow baseball closely were more likely to care a lot. And 51 percent of fans overall say MLB isn't doing enough about banned drugs.
"I think that Major League Baseball should do more about steroid use, as far as making a statement," said Cardinals fan Steve Subick of Mount Olive, Ill. "Baseball should make a stand on steroid use, so they're making it look like they're trying harder to make a difference."
Inge, however, took issue with the fans' concern.
"They're misinformed because there is no steroid issue in baseball anymore," the Tigers player said.
About two-thirds of fans felt tougher penalties for banned substances did not affect the quality of play this season.
Among other findings:
The AP-AOL Sports poll of 2,002 adults, including 774 baseball fans, was conducted by telephone Oct. 10-12 and Oct. 16-18 by Ipsos. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points for all adults, 3.5 percentage points for baseball fans.