Monday, May 14, 2007

Hammering Hank Is A Low Blow

One of the more disconcerting - and disgusting - developments regarding Barry Bonds' pursuit of Major League Baseball's all-time home run crown is how easy it has become to pillory Henry Aaron.


Bonds, the man most baseball fans see as the embodiment of all that was wrong with the steroid era, is a living, breathing controversy in spikes. With 745 home runs, the San Francisco Giants legend, has pulled with 10 home runs of Aaron's record.

He has also pulled along with him, the stench of the steroid era, its resulting debate on issues such as cheating, the degree to which we celebrate, snub or sneer at the new hallmark if and when Bonds passes Aaron.

The debate over Bonds' deservedness is raging, an inevitable outgrowth of a steroid era that keeps on giving Major League Baseball a black eye and many a fans an anger-filled reticence.

That is not to say that Bonds does not have his supporters as well as his detractors.


But why do those supporters feel a need to prop up their case for Bonds at the expense of Aaron?

Henry Aaron has done nothing wrong. Nothing!

Yet once again, Aaron, this quiet, humble man of few words and even fewer airs, finds himself on the scathing side of a baseball controversy not of his making. And once again, his discomfort emanates from pros and cons tinged with racial overtones.

Talk about being slapped back to a era best left forgotten. To borrow a quote from the great Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again for Aaron as the home run king once again finds his crown filled with thorns.

Lest we forget, back in 1974 - the year Aaron seized the home run crown from Babe Ruth - Aaron found his life turned into a living hell simply because he, a black man, had the timidity to pursue Ruth's hallowed mark of 714.

Aaron was not only hounded, belittled and insulted. He was threatened by anonymous white supremacists who thought that in order to "honor" Ruth they had to try to scare off Aaron. How? By using the ugliest racist epithets, by resorting to tactics which would have made only the lowest form of vermin proud.

Aaron endured that trial with little or no support of Major League Baseball which, in the person of then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, treated Aaron's pursuit with icy disdain.

Most of the nation would go years, even decades, before being made aware of just how lonely and, yes even dangerous, a road Aaron walked in order to surpass Ruth's then-magical 714 milestone.

In retrospect, Aaron's ability to soldier on was nothing short of heroic, having turned in a performance not only nuanced by his plentiful baseball skills, but also by his dedication, perseverance and strength of character.

Apparently too, too many of us have forgotten the combination of personal and professional traits that made Aaron the Hall of Fame player and Hall of Fame person he is.

For here we are, in 2007, and Aaron is again being torn at by critics who possess all the subtlety of a pack of pit bulls as he finds himself labeled a coward, an Uncle Tom, a sellout after making a decision not to be present if and when Bonds breaks his record.

Sadly, astonishingly, what makes this turn in Aaron's story so galling is that this time he is being ravaged by many of his fellow African Americans, some with powerful voices.
The venerable William C. Rhoden, a columnist with the New York Times, lumped baseball, hypocrisy, commissioner Bud Selig and his reticence with Aaron and his cold shoulder all in one damning commentary, writing: "In many ways, Selig and Aaron are making the problems worse, making the cloud over baseball thicker."
Rob Parker of the Detroit News and, like Rhoden, one of the preeminent black voices in sports media, was even harsher on Aaron in a recent column, stating flatly: "Hank Aaron is a coward."
That was just the first sentence. Parker went on: "What's Aaron's problem? Well, he needs to take a stand -- either denounce Bonds' attempt because he's been implicated in the steroids scandal, or embrace Bonds' accomplishment and show up. Playing middle of the road isn't fair -- to baseball, its fans or Bonds. Instead, Aaron has chosen the easy way out -- saying nothing. That's sad."
In recent conversations with some fellow blacks, I've heard yet another theme repeated, one that supports a recent ESPN/CBS poll that finds black America highly suspicious of Bonds' bashing. In these conversations I've heard one constant: bitterness over Aaron's refusal to embrace Bonds, to come to the defense of a fellow African American.
This, the critics charged - and very much sincerely believed, gives aid and comfort to those legions whose dislike of Bonds just has to be steeped in racism.

For why else, this school of thought has it, would Bonds be so hectored by the masses?

Got to be race. Just got to be ...

That rationale, of course, stops just short of the point where one could say, what about Aaron - a black man - who's about to lose a record built on talent and his own blood, sweat and tears as opposed to, say, the best efforts of your local neighborhood chemist.

So Aaron twists slowly as Bonds' inexorable drive hones in on him and his record. His silence is being berated more and more. His planned absence is being dissected and rejected cavalierly. By those who assume they better understand the predicament Aaron's been swept up in than does he.

No one, from the debaters in the barber shops, baseball stands and sports bars,, can ever truly know the depths of Aaron's angst, anger or, in the least, his ambivalence. Nor can any of the columnists and baseball writers and commentators who are turning up the heat on the still-quiet Aaron.

So as Aaron hides away the pain once again, let a chorus rise up and demand that this madness should stop. And let it be said here, that the easiest way to assure that it stops is to have no less than Barry Bonds demand it.

The slugger who professes to love baseball and takes every opportunity to honor Aaron's fellow great, Willie Mays, should acknowledge Aaron's dilemma. And he should demand that the wolf pack that's formed in his defense back away from the Hall of Famer.

Do that, Barry, and even your most ardent critics may take another look at your plight, and reluctantly admit that this was one home run swing that was beyond reproach.

Photo credit: The Sporting News

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Why Us This Man Smiling?

Associated Press Photo

Because the ptching strapped Yankees' vision of Roger Clemens being money in the bank is going to put, well, tons of money in the bank for the ever-mercenary Clemens.
Clemens' prorated $28 million, one-year contract announced today by the Yankees shows that, and more.
Cloak this latest return in all the sentimental glop you want. you know: Roger loves Joe Torre, Roger misses Andy Pettitte, Roger needed one more opportunity to plant a big, wet juicy kiss on Babe Ruth's likeness out there in the Yankee Stadium monuments.
Choked up, yet?
Truth is, what Roger Clemens missed was George Steinbrenner, or, more precisely, his ... money.
Getting the lettuce is one thing. Priming the pump with the deftness of a Clemens is another.
Clemens has always played the supply and demand game, and he's got a Hall of Famer's touch, a true great, because he's arguably better at extracting dough from hungry contenders than any player in the history of baseball.
Others may marvel at the brashness of Clemens' annual spring sale which allows him to skip niggling little details such as spring training, long bus rides across Florida or Arizona before or after exhibition games, April snow or bone-chilling rain.
No other Major League player has mastered this art, to be sure. Clemens? These performances are nothing short of Rocket science.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Meer dozen separating Barry, Hammer

Now it's down to an even dozen.

A dozen, as in the dwindling number of home runs now separating Barry Bonds from all-time leader Henry Aaron - and separating Baseball from its decision on what to do not if, but when, Bonds becomes the game's all-time home run leader.

Bonds blasted No. 743 late Wednesday night, and I mean blasted. The rocket shot had no arc, never seemed to rise more than 20 feet off the ground. Don't know if the Giants keep such records, but the homer must have set a record for quickest ride from home to the seats in right field at AT&T Park. Ouch!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bonds: Impervious -- And Unstoppable

When Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants host the Phillies tonight in the first game of a four-game series, the man who is now within 13 home runs of Henry Aaron's all-time record of 755 will settle into perhaps the only friendly venue left to him.

What the Phillies will find, and Giants fans at AT&T Park will welcome, is a Bonds who is healthy and lethal again.

Eight home runs in 63 at-bats - one every 7.9 times up - a .333 average and 17 RBIs, which he had entering last night's games, shout as much.

Most intriguingly, the Phils will find in Bonds a man impervious to his designated role of top villain in baseball's sordid steroid era.

Mark McGwire? Rafael Palmeiro? Jose Canseco? Bush-leaguers, all, in this unpopularity contest.

Because he outlasted his competition, because he has dared last long enough to flirt with a most storied record, Bonds is truly reviled.

Many a critic had hoped Bonds would not only fade away well short of Aaron. They fervently wished he would also drown in a torrent of indictments, subpoenas and suspensions.

The thing is, it hasn't happened.

Batboys turned steroid pushers turned government witnesses have fallen. Major- and minor-league users such as former big-league pitcher Jason Grimsley have, too. Just not Bonds.

Those caught are naming names and leaking to the media like sieves. But Bonds has yet to be slimed in a way that takes him off the field and into a court of law.

Joe Morgan, the Hall of Famer and color commentator who will call the Phillies-Giants game Sunday (8 p.m., ESPN, ESPN Deportes), suspects he knows why.

"If Barry's name had been on that list that was blacked out, we would have known about it," Morgan said, referring to a federal government affidavit concerning a former Mets clubhouse employee who has admitted providing steroids and other drugs to major-leaguers. "Same with Jason Grimsley.

"A lot of people's agendas are about getting Barry. Remember, his name came out for failing that amphetamine test. You can't tell me Barry was the only one that failed, but his was the only name that came out."

No doubt Bonds will always remain guilty in the minds of most fans. There is no argument, though, that he also remains amazingly elusive to those empowered to throw the book at him.

So Bonds plays on, his confidence, like his health, again intact.

"The media, the government, the fans have tried to get Barry for four years," Morgan said.

"They can't stop him. Say this about Barry: He is able to focus on his agenda, period. He doesn't care what I say, what you say, or what anybody else says."

Like him or hate him, you have to marvel at his sheer stubbornness, both physical and mental.
The seven-time league MVP, who is 42, looks again like the slugger who hit 258 home runs from 2000 to '04, not the broken-down guy with bum knees who played just 14 games in 2005.
It is this rejuvenated Bonds who is raising a host of prickly issues to even greater heights.

Opposing managers, who again fear him as much as many fans loathe him, are again shying away from challenging Bonds. Witness the 23 walks drawn by Bonds in his first 23 games.

"On the road, fans boo Barry when he comes to the plate, then they boo even louder if he's walked," said Morgan's booth partner, Jon Miller, who is also a Giants broadcaster. "One way or the other, they came to see Barry and they feel they're being ripped off."

Ambivalence grips others, as well. Baseball's bigwigs (i.e., commissioner Bud Selig) must decide, and quickly, whether to ignore, endorse, or even witness the inevitable.

No sympathy there. After all, this is a game that ignored cheating right up until stats bloated by whatever could no longer pass the smell test.

Aaron is a different story.

Nobody much cared what this quiet, humble man thought in 1974 when then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn unconscionably skipped Aaron's breaking of Babe Ruth's mythic record of 714 home runs.

If Selig decides to stiff Bonds similarly, the opinion no one wanted from Aaron 33 years ago will suddenly matter. Already, Aaron's decision not to witness the fall of his record has become an issue.

"Hank is in a no-win situation," Morgan said. "He has told me, 'I don't think you can condemn a person without proof.' Yet he also said he doesn't want to be a part of what happens, and you can't blame him, not when the first question inevitably will be, 'Do you think Barry cheated?'

"If he answers no, he'll be called a liar. If he says yes, it's sour grapes. Already, some guy in Detroit wrote 'Hank Aaron is a coward.' A coward!"

The question we must ask ourselves, Morgan said, is: What is it exactly that we want from Aaron?

We already know what we want from Bonds. We won't get it, though, because Barry is only about what he wants, the rest of the world be damned.