Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bonds, Ruth and Aaron

I love Hank Aaron.

When I was very young and my family was living in Wauwatosa, I was convinced that he lived in the same neighborhood as my baby-sitter when he was with the Braves. I remember watching him hit 715 on a small TV in my first college dorm room. I went to Opening Day in 1975 to see his return to Milwaukee. I am glad my son will get a chance to meet him someday during one of his many dignified appearances around town. On our way into every game at Miller Park, we touch the front foot of his statue for luck.

I also will enjoy seeing Barry Bonds break his record in this week.

Bond’s has issues, to be sure, that Aaron never had. While Aaron was Mr. Clean, Bonds, for about five years there, was certainly Riding Dirty. Bonds grew up in a decidedly different baseball era, where even gifted players were made, not born. Conditioning, weights, diet, supplements – athletes are now evaluated for basic makeup almost at birth and then designed for speed, for power, for strength. Bonds was born with exceptional skills, but much of him was built and designed by experts. Aaron just sort of happened.

Aaron was likewise of a different generation than Babe Ruth. Where Ruth was often slothful, Aaron was disciplined. Ruth could sit in the dugout, eating hot dogs and smoking cigarettes. Aaron, as a Negro League veteran, had to be perfectly behaved. Ruth also played in an all-white league and therefore avoided facing some of his era’s best players.

Bonds breaking Hank’s record won’t diminish Aaron’s accomplishments any more than Aaron diminished Ruth’s. Baseball will then have three different home run kings for three different eras. Ruth will always be the king of white-era baseball. Aaron will be the king of the middle passage, when baseball integrated and became big business. Until A-Rod passes him in six or seven years, Bonds will be the king of the designed ballplayer era, where skills are still taught but bodies, for good and ill, are sculpted and built for maximum impact (and income). Bonds, like an offensive line with an average weight of 350 lbs., is the epitome of cynical manipulation. Aaron may have been our last vestige of spontaneous magic.

Ken and I are going out to the Park today, and I won’t boo him (Ken will). Bonds is a Hame-of-Famer who also would have been one of the great players in Aaron’s era, even (especially) if he left his body alone. I hope the Brewers get ahead early and then I hope he pops one, maybe two. I’ll watch history on TV from San Francisco this week, and I hope he gets his due. Bonds did it dirty and ugly. But that’s the athletic entertainment world he (and we) are living in. He shouldn’t be punished just because he gave us the artificial fireworks we demanded.

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