Losing his crown, but not his class
Baseball did not deserve his grace, but Hank Aaron helped save the game he loves.
August 8, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- For Hank Aaron, that's 755 home runs, and one save. Bless him. Baseball did not deserve his grace. On this night, Aaron saved the game he loved. Never has an athlete served as a better role model than Aaron did Tuesday, 32 years into retirement. He acted selflessly, with dignity and nobility, demonstrating to the commissioner and to all the world one can put aside personal feelings for the greater good.
It might not rub off on Bud Selig, but it rubbed off on Barry Bonds.
There is a time and place for everything, including debates about the legitimacy of Bonds' ownership of the all-time home run record. On the night he set the record, in front of his home crowd, in a moment destined for replays in his mind and on his DVD, Bonds did not deserve to be demeaned.
Selig did not get that, and thank God he was not here. Selig considers Bonds a cheat, a fraud and a suspected criminal. Aaron isn't a fan either.
But, when Bonds tied Aaron's record Saturday, Selig issued a statement that started with the word "congratulations" and included the words "controversy" and "innocent until proven guilty."
As Bonds neared the record, Selig waffled on whether he would attend, making sure everyone knew how torn he was. When he did show up, he did so grudgingly, stuffing his hands in pockets Saturday while the San Diego crowd -- the visiting crowd! -- put its collective hands together to acknowledge history and the moment. This was not an endorsement of Bonds, just respect for the game.
Aaron never waffled. He said he would not attend, and he did not. He did not comment about Bonds' character. He let his actions speak for themselves.
But, with history calling, Aaron decided he needed to say the right words, to do the right thing.
When the Giants contacted Aaron, to ask him to record a congratulatory message, he could have said no, to remain true to his convictions. Or he could have agreed, then mixed innuendo with congratulations, a la Selig.
Bonds dropped his bat, pumped both arms toward the sky, clapped his hands, circled the bases and disappeared into the arms of his son, surrounded by teammates and family. The Giants celebrated, with fireworks and banners, with streamers and classical music.
Dmitri Young, the first baseman for the Washington Nationals, waved some of his teammates off the field so Bonds could enjoy the moment alone. The rest of the Nationals stayed on the field, sharing the moment and gathering near third base to applaud Bonds. Either way, the right thing.
Willie Mays, Bonds' godfather, the first Giants' icon in San Francisco, emerged from the dugout. The two men stood arm in arm, 1,416 home runs between them, first and fourth on the all-time list.
And then Bonds turned, Mays turned, we all turned to the enormous video board behind center field. There was Aaron, suddenly second on the all-time list, larger than life and appropriately so.
"I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home run leader," Aaron said. "It is a great accomplishment which requires longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years.
"I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams."
In the afternoon, several hours before the milestone, Mays sat in an office in the Giants clubhouse, talking about the promise he made to Bonds' late father, Bobby.
"The father told me to make sure I looked out for him," Mays said. "That's what I'm trying to do, to make sure he does the right thing. The last three weeks or so, I think he's done a magnificent job in interviews. He's trying to do the right thing."
And so, after Aaron spoke on the video board, Bonds turned to the crowd and spoke. He did not, as Rickey Henderson did when he set the stolen base record, declare himself the greatest of all time. He thanked the fans, his teammates, his family and the Nationals, then broke down in tears as he thanked his father.
Humility, not hubris. The right thing.
And then, incredibly, Selig issued another clumsy statement.
"While the issues which have swirled around this record will continue to work themselves toward resolution," Selig said, "today is a day for congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement."
Those issues will have their day. Bonds Watch is over, but Steroids Watch is not. Bonds still faces the possibility of indictment, for perjury or tax evasion. The Mitchell Commission will issue its report on how steroids infected baseball -- far beyond Bonds, if the report has any credibility. In courts in Arizona and New York, affidavits could be unsealed, within them the names of dozens of baseball players allegedly involved with steroids.
This was not the day for those issues, as Aaron understood and Selig did not. This was the day for remembering what my mother told me, and your mother told you: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.