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


jim said...

I am a white, 57 year old man who thinks Hank Aaron is a latter day Jackie Robinson for what he had to endure in 1974. I find it sad that the African American community is savaging Aaron over this issue, while the white support for him is so strong. Confusing to say the least.
All that being said, the simple fact is that Bonds didn't cheat...there were no rules to cover his "drug" use at the time. I don't think it is right, but truthfully, I will ignore Bonds accomplishment and always think of "Hammering Hank" as the home run king.
It's more than unfortunate that your editors didn't let you run this as a Sunday column, I think it would have had a great impact on many readers.

Brian said...

This entire issue of steroids, Bonds and baseball is so much baloney. As Jim so eloquently said:....

"All that being said, the simple fact is that Bonds didn't cheat...there were no rules to cover his "drug" use at the time."

Additionally all this is based on "reportedly" something said in the Grand Jury. NO one knows what was said to that jury until the transcripts are made public.

Also No one knows what substances Bonds used, or if he knew what they were. PERIOD! This is America and people are innocent until proven guilty.

No one has been more tested for drugs than Bonds over the last three years, yet somehow he is still hitting the long ball at a rate faster than even his record breaking year of 2001. He is one of the greatest baseball players ever. He hits home runs, steals bases, has 9 gold gloves. This phoney steroids scandal is so much about nothing except whiney sports writers who think they are so important that players must cow tow to them. Bonds has insulted them all by not playing their game of 'I'm more important than you"

No sports writer, broadcaster or fan for that matter who loves football and admires Donovan McNabb or Tom Brady can claim the higher mantle of morality regarding Bonds.

There is so much hypocricy surrounding "steroids" 99.9 percent of NFL players have done or still do steroids and yet they are heroes. Give me a break. by the way, try asking Aaron or Mays about "greenies".

Babe Ruth was the standard bearer, mantle holder and record holder until Hammerin Hank took all those titles away from Ruth. Now Aaron is the standard bearer, mantle holder and record holder until Bonds takes them away from him.

One day A-Rod will most likely do the same to Bonds and in turn someone will do the same to him. My guess is they all will be villanized just as Aaron and Bonds have been. Despite what you have been lead to believe, America really does not like heroes.

What Bonds endures today, is no less a witch hunt and lynching than what Aaron endured 30 years ago. Same witch hunt, different characters.