April 8, 1974. I was a skinny, energetic nine year old who was counting the days until his first game playing organized baseball in the Hyde Park little league. Baseball had recently replaced hockey as my favorite sport. We were having dinner at my Aunt Carol's triple decker apartment just off of Washington Street in Roslindale. As usual in those days (and these days as well) I was engrossed with anything concerning baseball and someone breaking the all time home run record was a huge deal. After scarfing down dinner I made my way into the parlor and sat on the couch to hopefully witness history. I didn't know until I was older that this event was bigger than one great ballplayer eclipsing another. I wasn't aware that Mr. Aaron endured death threats, feared for his families safety and was a physical and mental wreck due to his pursuit of the "Babe". This was about baseball, pure and simple.
I am now 42 and baseball is not just about baseball. The innocence that the game once held is gone. Baseball, since its beginning has been played by men. Men drink, gamble, carouse and swear. Until the past thirty years it was a game played by average men, of average size, coming from middle or lower class households. Most players had to have a job in the off season just to make ends meet. Being a ballplayer was a hard life. Every boy thought he could be a ballplayer someday because there was no class distinction and when the color barrier was broken as long as you were the best of the best you would have a place in the game regardless of where you came from.
Reporters understood that it was career suicide to tear down the "working class hero" facade that enveloped the game. You couldn't read in the paper about the Babe's drinking binges or any players private indiscretions. Men were men and it was accepted that when you get 25 men traveling the country for eight months "stuff" was going to happen. No one cared about the integrity of the men off the field it was the integrity on the field that counted.
Who would have thought thirty years ago that you go to a ballpark and pay $85 to see 18 millionaires run around and play a game that may not be legitimate. Use of HGH, steroids, greenies have grown with the outrageous salaries. Why do the players get outrageous salaries? Because the owners make outrageous profits. Why do the owners make outrageous profits? Because the fans dole out the money. Why do fans dole out the money? Because they love to see home runs. How do they see more home runs? By the players taking more HGH, Steroids and amphetamines.
It no longer matters if what players do on the field is legitimate. We hear about players stints in rehab, domestic problems, Vegas trips and stops at stripper bars, but no one cared until Barry Bonds got close to the home run record that many baseball players no longer look like humans, but cartoon characters. No one cared that McGwire, Sosa and Bonds went from svelte, athletic rookies to pumped up, acne covered side show freaks.
Mr. Bonds has accomplished an incredible feat for the ages. The perseverance, longevity and skill that it takes to hit 756 home runs is beyond comprehension. The only one in my mind between the 755 that Mr. Aaron hit and the 756 that Mr. Bonds hit is the adversity each man endured on his journey. Mr Aaron feared for his life in the year preceding his pursuit of the Babe due to something he couldn't control, the color of his skin. Mr. Bonds has endured tremendous adversity, but all of it self imposed. If he never was implicated in the BALCO affair and he was able to accomplish this feat without the use of performance enhancing drugs, then today there would be nothing but accolades coming his way.
I still remember the black and white images of Aaron running briskly around the bases after belting 715. The only thing different visually from that home run than any other of that time was the two fans that ran the bases next to him and the flashing "715" they showed on the scoreboard. He did his job and humbly went to his dugout.
The irony is when Bonds hit his historic bomb he stood at home plate for a few seconds to savor his accomplishment then raised his arms triumphantly. A little humility would have helped to endear him to his critics.
I hope that by the time A-Rod breaks the record circa 2015 that we worry more about the integrity of the game on the field than the players lives off the field.