Saturday, April 08, 2006

Hammerin' Hank's home run

Nope, I wasn't around to see it. But those who did say they will never forget it.

At 9:07 p.m. thirty-two years ago today in Atlanta, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing threw what he hoped would be a low-and-outside pitch toward the plate. But the pitch sailed toward the strike zone.

The waiting batter, Atlanta's Henry Aaron, connected. The ball sailed just over the fence into the Braves bullpen, where reliever Tom House caught the ball and began running like mad toward home plate.

Henry Aaron rounded the bases and walked into history.

Aaron was a ballplayer's ballplayer. He never led the league in single-season home runs. Never puffed out his chest. Never drew too much attention to himself.

Nope, he was just consistent. Year in and year out, he'd hit 35, 40, 42 home runs a season. By the end of the 1973 season, Aaron was on the verge of passing Babe Ruth's seemingly gargantuan mark of 714 home runs.

Not everybody was excited. The commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, was not in Atlanta that spring night. He said he didn't want to be a distraction. More seriously, "fans" across the country sent Aaron hate letters, many of them filled with racial epithets.

It must have cut to the very soul of this sensitive, decent, private person. But Aaron kept a stiff upper lip. He let his actions serve as his answer.

Even on what should have been the greatest night of his life, Aaron was self-effacive. "I just thank God it's all over," he said after he hit No. 715. He didn't even break into a smile until his mother grabbed him at home plate. Atlanta fans, who had finally found it prudent to show up at the park, cheered and cheered and cheered some more.

"Much has changed since 1974," author Tom Stanton wrote in his fine book on Aaron's home run, "Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America. "Atlanta Stadium is gone... Chief Noc-A-Homa has retired, and the Braves have become a dominant franchise."

And Aaron's record finally, unbelievably, is close to being broken. But, even in this, the circumstances are so different from years ago.

San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds is but a few homers away from Ruth, 47 away from Aaron. Unlike either of these legends, Bonds has apparently had a little help to reach this plateau.

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know all about Bonds, steroids, and BALCO. I won't regurgitate all that here.

But every time ESPN cameras follow Bonds around, every time another article is written about his home run chase, every time he whines on TV that his life is ruined, I think back to the video footage of humble Hank Aaron trotting around the bases. I think about the weariness in his eyes. I think about all that crap he put up with. I think about his quiet, gentle spirit.

And I hope with all my being that Barry Bonds never, ever replaces Aaron's name in the record books.

("Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America" by Tom Stanton is available from William Morrow. Retail price (hardcover) is $23.95.)

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