Wednesday, April 11, 2007

All Hail the (True) Home Run King

Sunrise and Sprinklers. Healdsburg, CA 2007
I have few sports heroes. I mean I’m just as awed as the next person when an athlete does something amazing when the game is on the line. I know you’re thinking, it’s not life and death. It’s not what doctors and fireman and cops do, it’s not like a crazy, incredible act of bravery by a special person.

Yeah, it’s not important in the every day life-and-death sort of important, but at the moment it’s happening, it’s big, it’s huge, it’s the most important thing to the players involved and a lot of the people watching. Maybe it’s manufactured pressure, but it’s effect is real and lasting and at the moment it’s all happening, it’s freaking huge. I think people like me love sports because of the purity of the way it tests your character. And your nerve. You do or you don’t. You are or you aren’t. Him vs. you. Win or go home.

So yeah, I respect the great ones. Jordan and Bird and Magic. Schilling and his bloody sock. Mookie’s grounder. Willis Reed limping into the Garden. Kirk Gibson’s one-legged homer. Laettner’s buzzer beater in ’92 . Great moments to talk about and rehash and be awed that in their one moment to shine, these guys stepped up and came through, their characters were revealed, they won.

My years spent as a sportswriter soured me a little on sports heroes, mostly because I got to know many of them and, well, whose idol doesn’t get knocked down a few pegs when discovered that they’re actually human?

Not Hank Aaron.

He was big sports hero when I was a kid. I came of baseball age when he was past his prime but still hitting home runs. I got my baseball batting stance from pictures in a book about Aaron that I read over so many times, the pages fell out. And later, when I met him briefly as an adult (I interviewed him for a story), he was everything I hoped and imagined. True, he was guarded and reserved (as he’s always been with the press and other outsiders) but also a gentleman who was patient with my questions and pointed in his comments (he was speaking out for more African-Americans executives and managers in baseball) and, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, my obvious and somewhat fawning admiration. I may be the only girl who ever told him that she copied his batting stance.

Aaron has always been a quiet man who did not seek or want the public attention that rained on him in the summer of 1973. It was not a record everyone wanted Aaron to break. Besides the bigots who sent hate mail, there was an undercurrent of baseball people who felt Aaron, who never hit the benchmark 50-home run mark, was worthy of breaking the great Babe Ruth’s record.

But without boring y’all with his statistics, Aaron was easily one of the best players in the history of the game, not merely a tremendous hitter. Besides winning three Gold Gloves as an outfielder (during a generation that possibly saw the greatest outfielders in the game), he led the league multiple times in hits (twice), RBI (four times), and homers (four times). He finished his career with the most total bases, RBI and extra-base hits in addition to the hallowed home run record.

That last record – the most career home runs – is about to be broken which ought to be the story in sports this summer but it’s turned into something else. Something dirty and embarrassing and tawdry. This is because Barry Bonds, the man who is about to surpass Aaron on the all-time list, while arguably the greatest hitter of our generation, is also widely considered to have, for some of those home runs, been helped out by a regimen of steroids.

Bonds has never explicitly tested positive for steroids as far as the public knows and he has vehemently denied knowingly using them. He has been connected to steroid suppliers and in the 2006 book, "Game of Shadows," the authors accuse Bonds (and others) of juicing and then covering their use with a host of masking agents.

I have been very much on the fence about what is now being referred to as baseball’s ‘steroid era’. Part of my ambiguity rests in the clear and tacit approval given the steroid users by Major League Baseball which until a former player revealed baseball’s worst kept secret, didn’t do a thing to get them out of the game. I have no doubt some baseball officials even wanted players to juice because they wanted more home runs. More home runs, it was hoped, would bring more fans to ballparks and in the aftermath of a contentious strike that had caused the World Series to be canceled and so alienated the fan base that there was a fear baseball would never recover, putting butts in seats was apparently more important than regulating against cheaters.

My thinking then was that if baseball wasn’t banning ‘roids, than Bonds and everyone else who’s been accused of taking them, wasn’t doing anything against the rules. After all, we've had players admitting to stealing signs and throwing spitters and even playing drunk.

So with all this circulating in my head, I’ve been thinking about Bonds and this record all winter, thinking about what I would write, working through my thoughts on the whole subject. I had not as of yet settled on how I felt, that's how much of a battle was raging in my brain. That was before yesterday, when I turned on ESPN and saw the face of my hero staring back at me.

Aaron, who has refused almost any interview on the subject of Bonds breaking his home run record, was quoted this week in he Atlanta-Journal Constitution as saying he would not be on hand when Bonds goes number 756.

"I'd probably fly to West Palm Beach to play golf," Aaron told Journal-Constitution columnist Terence Moore. "Again, it has nothing to do with anybody, other than I had enough of it. I don't want to be around that sort of thing anymore. I just want to be at peace with myself. I don't want to answer questions. It's going to be a no-win situation for me anyway. If I go, people are going to say, 'Well, he went because of this.' If I don't go, they'll say whatever. I'll just let them make their own mind up."

Thanks to Aaron, I’ve made up my mind. I think it speaks volumes that he’s not acknowledging the record, that he seems to be saying that he believes, as do some other legends, that Bonds didn’t get to the record legitimately.

Being up here in Northern California, I’ve heard a lot from Barry Bonds apologists (on the public airwaves and off), how he’s just the poster child for steroids, how he’s not the only one, just the one guy everybody’s focusing on. How prior to his superhuman burst of home run power (he's hit 360 homers, a little less than half his total since the age of 33), his numbers put him among the top hitters in baseball ever. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever Bonds is getting from his critics, he has only himself to blame. Anyone who cries over “poor Barry” ought to remember who started this whole thing in the first place.

I’m reminded of the day I watched Aaron break Ruth’s record, how those two fucking moron fans ran onto the field and tried to circle the bases with him until they were tackled by the cops. I hate those two idiots. I hate that they stole Aaron’s shining moment, ripped it from the nicest, classiest guy ever and every time I watch it again, I want to scream at those assclowns. What right did they have to mar a moment this man spent half his life earning? Fuckers.

Now I think Bonds is doing it to Aaron again. He’s stealing the crown from the king. I hope Bonds doesn’t break the home run record. But if he does, it won’t matter to me. The King will always be the king.

1 comment:

susie said...

I say give Bonds an ** next to his record in the record books. Or maybe that little symbol that's on pill bottles.