Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Crying Sham

This stinks. This really, really, really stinks.

One of the most cherished records in all of sports is about to fall, and the soon-to-be recordholder is being treated, justifiably, as a pariah. The cameras flash and the TV cameras roll because they kind of have to. The commissioner is in attendance because, you know, it's his sport and he kind of has to be there. The fans? Except for the safe house in San Francisco, the tide has been overwhelmingly negative. And finally - and really, most importantly - the previous recordholder, a man who went through an entirely different hell to reach new heights, will be nowhere to be found when #756 clears the fence.

It's gotten sad to the point where the true drama of the moment, whenever it comes, is waiting to see what Bud Selig's reaction will be. Last night, when Barry Bonds smacked an opposite-field home run to tie Hank Aaron's record at 755, the cameras showed a very confused commish. His hands remained jammed into the pockets of his sport coat, and he was expressionless, just surveying the whole scene. Since Bud is a very close friend of Aaron's I wondered if this tepid reaction was sort of an extension of how the Hammer truly feels about this whole disaster. Was Bud a visual proxy for the feelings of his friend?

In a way, the depth of appreciation for what Aaron both went through and did may never be stronger than it is right now - just as his 30-year record is about to be broken. Aaron, as we all know, was a young black man playing his sport is hostile territory -- the segregated South. To read about the death threats, and the terrible abuse his family endured, is heart-breaking. A few weeks ago, SI's excellent baseball writer, Tom Verducci, eloquently captured the turmoil Aaron went through, comparing his moment of celebration over 715 with another more recent "milestone":

"In September 1998, Aaron watched wistfully as Mark McGwire crossed home plate following his record-breaking 62nd home run and hugged his son, Matthew, dressed in a Cardinals uniform as a team batboy. When Aaron hit 715, his daughter, Gaile, a student at Fisk University in Tennessee, had to watch on television while under the protection of FBI agents because of a kidnapping plot against her..."

As we prepare to watch Barry Bonds swat 756, we hate it on a number of levels. We hate it because he's been such an absolute selfish, malcontented dink (even today, when he's battling with the Hall of Fame over what items he will give them)... we hate it because he grew up as the privileged son of a pretty talented major leaguer... we hate it most of all because the mountain of evidence suggests without a doubt that he cheated. Aaron, meanwhile, has never been described as warm and fuzzy, but he has been described by many as classy, dignified, graceful, respectful, and humble. He grew up poor, had to deal with the intense race issues of the day, and he thought he might die as he attempted to break Babe Ruth's record. Aaron is our grandparents - quiet, working hard, steady as she goes, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch and drinking a cool glass of lemonade. Bonds, much as I hate to say it, is in many ways a symbol of our society today. Instant gratification, and do whatever it takes to get there. And do it while you're sitting in your own private leather recliner in the clubhouse, away from your teammates.

So while this national nightmare winds its way to an end, here's something to ponder. As fans, we can simply flip the mental switch and value another statistic over home runs. Think about it -- the home run is like the 350-yard drive in golf. It's impressive, but it doesn't tell you about the guy's whole game. I hereby nominate total bases.

Makes a little sense, doesn't it? And here's the best part. Bonds is #4 on the all-time list for total bases with 5929. Aaron is first with an incredible 6856.

Long live the Hammer.

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