By Jason Keidel
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Lost in the feel-good bubble wrapped around the Mets-Braves game yesterday is the truth that an amazing man and equally amazing record have been hauled into the warehouse of history.
Hank Aaron has been reduced to a footnote, when, in fact, he should still be hailed as the home run king. The “New School” types want us to get over it. They think we’re stuck in yesteryear, moths banging into the light bulb of the old days.
Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire are the princes of the long ball, while Barry Bonds is the king – provided you can even squeeze a crown over his swollen dome.
We all want to think we witnessed the apex of an epoch. Forget Mantle and Mays. We saw Ken Griffey Jr. and Bonds. Never mind Gibson and Koufax. We had Maddux and Martinez.
And please disregard Roger Maris and Henry Aaron, who still are home run royalty to millions of us, even if the newer crop of fans wants Aaron annexed, lumped in with the kind graybeards who have their place, just not at the top.
Aaron mused from the hometown diamond on Tuesday, reflecting on an iconic career that ended at 755 home runs, including the immortal 715th he hit exactly 40 years and a day ago. Even at 80, he still carries an aged elegance wherever he goes. He exudes none of the expected bitterness that comes with breaking essential records at a time when America still wanted its heroes white.
Aaron had to read his mail with one eye open. While he circled the bases those final, few times, he was also branded every racial slur in the catalog by those who still thought every great occasion was decidedly Caucasian.
Aaron played during a pyrotechnic time in American history, when black athletes weren’t happy with just a few bucks and a pat on the rear. While their friends and families were denied access to their slice of the American Dream, the Civil Rights era spawned a more vocal lot inside the sterile, corporate walls of team sports.
Jim Brown, Bill Russell and, of course, Muhammad Ali were the new, hybrid athlete-activist, whose talons dug into the establishment and ripped society wide open. Jackie Robinson started it, and then sports became a trial balloon for the wider, social narrative.
Aaron wasn’t as verbally violent as Ali, preferring to represent himself with his bat and his dignity. So it’s particularly insulting to hear people dismiss Aaron so quickly, wipe him from the record books with a Barry Bonds brush that drips (allegedly) with steroids. Perhaps no athlete has flaunted his malfeasance and flouted the rules the way Bonds did.
This isn’t a matter of nostalgia. Records are broken, and one generation begrudgingly surrenders to the next. But the matter of Maris and Aaron against McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds is about fairness. We love sports for the zero-sum finality of the final score. There is no gray area in victory in defeat, unless the means used to win or lose is questionable.
We have to assume the score was settled fairly and honestly or the whole thing is marginalized and trivialized, reduced to a haze of doubt. That’s why the Black Sox scandal was so devastating, as was the CCNY point-shaving debacle of the ’50s. Sports are the ultimate meritocracy. We assume each participant succeeds or fails on his or her talent, temerity and honesty.
So now Aaron is rolled out like a relic every few summers, a nod to a fading generation of bitter old men who just can’t accept their place down the rungs of history. But the truth is that Aaron and Maris are the patron saints of the home run.
This isn’t a matter of nostalgia, only fairness, the wholly sporting ideal that playing field is level. Is LeBron better than Jordan? Depends on your metrics. But we can have that debate above water because neither man bent the rules to fit the contours of his outsized ego.
And since no sport is more glued to its history and statistics than baseball, the Steroids Era tossed the entire apparatus on its ear. We can attach caveats, provisos, and catch phrases (like “allegedly”) to the behemoths who sterilized the record books. But we know that the home run records were rewritten by frauds.
So when we see Hank Aaron, we see more than a gentleman or a baseball dignitary who reminds us of a more wholesome time. Aaron is the face of fairness, which led to his greatness, and still makes him the greatest.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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