Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Aaron's Long Road to 714

Except for the city by the bay America seems united in its opinion that Barry Bonds passing of Hank Aaron’s homerun record is a travesty to baseball.

Sportswriters look back to the night when a Hank Aaron line drive to left field cleared the wall and landed in Braves’ reliever Tom House’s glove as a simpler time for baseball, when the country rose as one and saluted the new homerun king.

He did it without the taint of steroids, or loud declarations of cheating.

No Hank Aaron was no cheater in 1973. No, in 1973 Hank Aaron was something much worse than a cheater.

Hank Aaron was black.

Years pass very quickly, both now, and then. Aaron surpassed Ruth’s record 27 years after Jackie Robinson broke into baseball. 27 years ago, John Lennon was killed, the United States defeated Russia in Olympic hockey, and Saddham Hussein began a war with Iran. 1980 almost seems like yesterday, and in 1974 a black man walking on to a professional baseball field for the first time also seemed like yesterday.

In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery Alabama jump starting the Civil Rights movement, 19 years before Aaron hit his bomb. 19 years ago the west was slapped in the face with pro-Islamic terrorists when Pam-Am 103 exploded over Lockerbee; Russia withdrew from Afghanistan leading to the country becoming a training ground for said terrorists, and Ben Johnson was caught at the Olympics using a drug called “steroids.”

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act passed leading to riots in Selma Alabama, Watts, Detroit and Newark. Nine years later Ruth’s record was history. Nine years ago two students entered Columbine High School and killed 13; John Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane and died; and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published.

In 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated causing riots in several cities. Six years later Aaron hit 714. Six years ago was 2001.

We are a country still haunted by 9-11 and Columbine; still in sorrow over JFK Jr’s death; still fighting a war on terror that began 19 years ago in the air over Lockerbee; and our country is at war because of the actions of a tyrant 27 years ago, and fondly remembers a hockey team.

As Aaron dug in the box to face Al Downing in 1974 all the race related drama that faced the country for the past 27 years was as fresh as the day Robinson stepped on to the field. There were some who had always supported the rights of black men, some who had changed, and a lot who hated them, and the focal point of that hatred was the black man who was about the break the record of the country’s most famed athlete, Babe Ruth.

It was only 13 years earlier that the country turned on a white man, in a Yankee uniform, Roger Maris, when he broke Ruth’s single season record, but that was partly because, if someone had to break it, and it came down to Maris or Mickey Mantle the popular choice was Mantle.

As the 70’s began the country seemed to come to terms that the record would falter, and like Mantle v. Maris there was Aaron v. Mays, with the graceful, exuberant “Say Hey Kid,” being the popular choice. But his knees crumbled and old age crept in, leaving Aaron alone climbing towards the summit.

Aaron chased the record throughout the 1973 season, but fell one short of tying, and then had to literally survive the winter (he had told friends he was afraid he wouldn’t live to see 1974) while being besieged by racist hate mail and death threats.

It was a winter of discontent for Aaron and the nation, embroiled in Watergate, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and the cancellation of the Brady Bunch.

Mark McGwire’s pursuit of Maris’ record was a carnival with his plump son acting as batboy and family in the stands. Aaron’s children were no where to be found, one in college, two in private schools being guarded. Security at the ballpark wasn’t what it is today, and each time Aaron walked to the plate, six years after the deaths of King and RFK, he had to wonder if someone was on the upper deck with a rifle looking down at him.

Even after 714 was safely in the bullpen, between second and third, there was one last threat, as he heard footsteps behind him, and looked to see two white men next to him, who reached up, and patted him on the back as the crowd cheered.

If people think that Bonds is facing pressure now, he had no idea the pressure Aaron was under, because Aaron was hated for what he was, not the decisions he had made.

Sportswriters look back on Aaron now and mention the threats he received but never look at the overall mood of the country at the time he broke the record, never really capture the hatred, the fear, the common use of the names he was called.

Hank Aaron may not hold the homerun record, but now, years past, we realize what he went through, and what he accomplished, and when he walks down the street people say: “There goes a man.”

Barry Bonds, not for the color of his skin, but because of his choices, may never hear those words.

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