Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Commentary: A Home Run Chase for the Ages

A lively winter read stirs musings on the game's greatest sluggers

By Christopher Heun

Little imagination is required to envision the greatest home run hitter of a generation, in the twilight of his career and just one rung from the top of the record book, frustrated by nagging reporters, haunted by angry fans rooting against him and ignored by the commissioner of baseball, who would decline to attend the record-breaking night.

Sounds like the life of Barry Bonds this season as he whacks his way toward home run 756 to surpass Hank Aaron as the new home run king. (He needs just 22 more). But it’s also the same environment that Aaron himself confronted in April 1974 when a new season began with him just one home run short of Babe Ruth’s record.

Aaron’s chase of the Babe is beautifully told in "Hank Aaron: One For The Record, The Inside Story of Baseball’s Greatest Home Run," George Plimpton’s account of home run 715. I read the book this winter and was struck by the similarities between the circumstances Aaron faced then and Bonds encounters today.

Plimpton, the former editor of The Paris Review who chronicled one of his many exploits, his attempt to pitch against the 1960 National League All Star lineup, in "Out of My League," is a wonderful storyteller and excellent reporter.

He recounts how reporters asked Aaron what seemed to be silly questions about what he had eaten the night before, only to complain they were getting the same answers. “It was pointed out to them that they were asking the same questions,” Plimpton writes. Bonds, no doubt, can relate.

After Aaron hit home run 714 on his first swing of the 1974 season, when the Braves were in Cincinnati, commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered Aaron to be in lineup the final two games of the series. The Braves, however, wanted to sit their star so that history could be made in front of their home crowd.

Kuhn knew his edict, which the Braves obeyed, made him unpopular in Atlanta. When Aaron did in fact slug 715 at home, Kuhn was delivering a dinner speech in Cleveland. “My presence would be a negative influence on what was supposed to be a positive occasion,” Kuhn had said beforehand.

Chances are, the current commissioner, Bud Selig, also won’t be in the ballpark if Bonds manages to break the record. Bonds, as the Sultan of the Syringe, stained by his past steroid use despite never failing a drug test, mocks Selig and the best interests of baseball that his office has failed to protect. On top of that, Selig, who owned a piece of the Braves before they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, is friends with Aaron and if given a choice would probably choose a less controversial player to break the record.

The steroid use, of course, (and not just premium flaxseed oil) is the biggest difference between Aaron and Bonds. But there are more subtle distinctions between the two men.

Aaron never watched 715 land. “As he had done those countless times, he looked toward first base as he ran, dropping his bat neatly just off the base path, and when he saw the exultation of the first-base coach, Jim Busby, he knew for sure that the long chase was over,” Plimpton writes. By contrast, every Bonds homer now is a chance for him to do his best Vogue impersonation and strike a pose in the batter's box.

Listen to Aaron’s father when asked if he had been prepared for the historic moment. “I never paid the record no attention. It slipped up on me like everybody else. Henry was in baseball for work.”

Aaron also was not fussy about his equipment, keeping just a single spare bat on hand. Imagine how many more home runs he might have hit if fortified with the obnoxious arm and elbow pads that Bonds and others of the current generation wear to crowd the plate with impunity.

Among the players on the field April 8, 1974, who watched the historic home run, there is an interesting link to the present: Dusty Baker, Bonds’ future manager, batted fifth for the Braves, behind Aaron. Two future Orioles managers, Davey Johnson and Johnny Oates, played in the game, as did Davey Lopes, who coached for the O’s before a stint as manager of the Brewers. Lee Lacy, who ended his career in Baltimore, pinch hit for Lopes in the game.

Perhaps the most surprising fact I learned from the game’s
box score is that Bill Buckner batted second for the Dodgers that night and played left field; he stole 31 bases for the ‘74 Dodgers and then 18 for the ‘85 Red Sox. His moment of infamy would come the following season, hobbled in a pair of high top cleats in Game 6 of the World Series, when he let a ground ball through his legs and Sox fans would have to wait 18 more years for a Series win. But he was speedy once.

Bonds needs 22 homers to ruin the record book. But at least one baseball scribe doesn’t think he will make it this season. FoxSports.com’s
Dayn Perry may just be engaging in a little wishful thinking, but he insists that a combination of age (Bonds turns 42 in July), potential for injury, off-field trouble and a lack of protection in the lineup, among other factors, will prevent any fireworks celebrations for the Giants and their star this season.

If Bonds does pass Aaron as baseball’s home run king, I doubt anyone will write a book as skillful as Plimpton’s that captures the moment – and the pressure leading up to it – from so many different perspectives, everyone from the radio announcer to the mascot. The book on Bonds, in one way, has already been written: "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports."

It could be a few years from now, after Bonds finally retires and the investigations surrounding him – of perjury, money laundering, and income-tax evasion – are resolved, before we reach some perspective on steroids and the accomplishments of those who played before drug testing.

Regardless, we may not ever hear something like this from Bonds. It’s Aaron reflecting on his accomplishment:

“Maybe what I’ve done is make new fans. At first there was a lot of mail from people, older people, who didn’t want me to break Babe Ruth’s record. The young generation took note of that, and supported me. I think they want to relate to me, to see me have a record, not someone their granddad saw play.”

1 comment:

dallas said...

I really enjoyed your post.

I was wondering how you felt about Ruth's record since he played during segregation and some of the game's best players were relegated to the Negro Leagues.

Don't you feel that Ruth's record is invalid as well?