Archive for the ‘Hank Aaron (Mil.)’ Category

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Hank Aaron

August 8, 2007
 

“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which requires skill, 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.” -Hank Aaron, 8/07/07

I just finished reading The Soul of Baseball, Joe Posnanski’s excellent book about a year spent traveling around America with a 94-year-old Buck O’Neil. I highly recommend the book (as well as Posnanski’s brilliant, enjoyable blog). One section in the book covers O’Neil’s reactions to the congressional hearings on steroids in baseball in 2005. O’Neil, who as many know was an excellent player and manager in the Negro Leagues, the first African American coach in the major leagues, a renowned scout whose signings included Lou Brock, Joe Carter, and (most importantly for myself and other children of the ’70s) the awe-inspiring Oscar Gamble, and an unmatched storyteller, historian, and ambassador for the game, was both drawn to and pained by the congressional hearings. In his mind, no one was being asked in those hearings to speak for baseball. O’Neil’s life was a glowing illustration of his belief that baseball was religion, but his views on steroid use were far from preachy; he knew that baseball players had always looked for an edge any way they could, and the only reason steroids hadn’t been used back in his day was because they hadn’t been available. Still, he found the steroid hearings wrenching, as if his beloved game had been thrown in a stockade at the center of town and was now being pelted with stinking, rotten fruit. 

Many people still sense a rotten stink on the game. Many people are bitter about the game they once loved. Buck O’Neil had as much opportunity to be bitter about baseball as anyone. He was not given the chance to be a major league player even though he was good enough. He was not given the chance to be a major league manager even though he was good enough. In his last year of life he was shockingly left out of a large collection of Negro Leaguers who were at long last enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. But he was never bitter, choosing instead to focus on finding and nourishing life and love, two rivers which to him kept intersecting again and again in his favorite game. Buck O’Neil was a great man.

My first thought when I found out this morning that the home run record had been broken was “so what?” Then I watched the video of the home run and was a little repelled by the record-breaker’s home-plate-touching moment, when he seemed almost oblivious to his son, who was hugging him. (Instead of hugging back, the record-holder focused on pointing with his bulging arms at the sky. I guess I hate religion if it means sons go unhugged.) (Author note/update: as pointed out by a couple readers in the comments below, he was actually pointing toward and thinking about his dad.) But anyway the bitterness dissolved when I saw the words of a man who, like Buck O’Neil, might have real cause to be bitter. They are noble words, classy words, and they’re true words, too. As unappealing as you or I might find the current record-holder, he did show a ton of “skill, longevity and determination.” He is also, ‘roids or not, the most fearsome hitter I’ve ever seen. Barry Bonds is a great baseball player. 

Hank Aaron is a great man.

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Hank Aaron

November 9, 2006
 

The happiest moment of my childhood came during a game between my little league team, the Mets, and the usually dominant Yankees, coached by aforementioned future convicted pederast Mick Lewis. Mick’s Yankees had won the league title the first three years I’d been in little league while my team had gone 9-6, 6-9, and 6-9, two of the losses each year horrific blowouts at the hands of the Yankees. There was no such thing as a mercy rule back then, so they beat the shit out of us until it got too dark to see, final scores usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 37-2.

Mick was revered as a great teacher of the game. His team was always getting the jump on everybody else, having preseason training camps inside gymnasiums during those neverending weeks in Vermont when the calendar says spring but snow and freezing rain keep pounding down. Mick was dedicated, even umpiring all the games his team wasn’t playing in, which probably also allowed him to probe for weaknesses among the opposition. Contrary to the cliched image of the dominant, red-faced, win-at-all-costs little league dictator, Mick was actually quite soft-spoken and mild, though he also was able to carry an air of authority about him. All the kids who weren’t on his team wished they were.

But the real key to his success, at least in the commonly held view, which mixed admiration with envy, was that unlike other little league managers who just picked names out of a hat when it came time to draft new 8-year-olds every year, Mick “scouted.” I was never exactly sure what this scouting entailed, but of course it creeps me out to recall my vague conception of it: Mick pulling up to playgrounds and parking, his car idling as he looked out from beneath his cool flip-down sunglasses in hopes of spotting some “natural talent.” And of course it creeps me out even further to remember that on numerous occasions I’d wished that I’d been one of his “finds.”

Anyway, in my fourth year, which would turn out to be another 6–9 trudge for the Mets, Mick’s team suddenly got terrible, though somehow even this got framed in professional-seeming terms, the Yankees “rebuilding” instead of just sucking. I guess Mick’s scouting had temporarily failed him. Who knows, maybe he had tried to break certain habits for a while, vowing to himself to stay away from playgrounds. All I know is we finally got our chance to kick their ass. The happiest moment of my childhood occurred during the first of these whuppings.

I hit a ball over the leftfield fence.

In my little league, to hit a home run was to become a made man. Every year, only a handful of guys managed it, each of them instantly becoming little league famous. My hallowed older brother had hit two in his final year on the Mets two years earlier, but since he was a lot bigger and better than me at sports and since I wore glasses (nobody who hit home runs wore glasses) I always assumed such a thing was beyond my reach. Though I was an OK hitter for batting average, I’d never even hit a ball off the fence. But I guess that at-bat against the sucking Yankees provided the perfect storm–a straight medium-fast pitch right down the middle from a talented but spindly 8-year-old, Mike LaRoque, a good swing by me, and about an inch clearance both over the chain-link leftfield fence and to the right of the short metal foul pole. The more mythic little league heroes pounded their homers into the river a hundred feet beyond the centerfield fence, but so what? If I knew anything from my baseball cards it was that a home run was a home run.

I remember not really understanding what had happened until I saw the first-base ump circling his finger in the air, the sign for the runner to “touch them all.” I staggered around the bases with a huge dumb grin on my face, and at home plate all my teammates mobbed me.

We pounded the Yankees so badly that I came up again that same inning. As I was about to dig in for the first pitch I heard someone calling to me from the shadows behind the chicken wire covering the opposing dugout. It was Mick.

“Josh,” Mick said. “Hey, Josh.” I turned toward the Yankee dugout.

“No batter here, right, Josh?” Mick said, showing me his in-joke, only-for-the-made-guys smile.

I promptly popped out to the second baseman, ending the inning.

In Pagan Kennedy’s new novel, Confessions of a Memory Eater, a disgruntled 40-year-old history professor experiments with a new drug that allows him to return with total clarity to any moment in his past. I have no doubt that if I ever got a chance to use this drug my first stop would be the day I hit a home run. I’d start the memory as I was walking to the plate and end it before my next at-bat, before my name was on Mick Lewis’s tongue, before my life of mostly popping out to second base resumed. I’d end it with me stomping on home plate as my teammates laughed and screamed and pummeled me.

In other words, I’d go back to the one slim beautiful moment when I was somehow miraculously Hank Fucking Aaron.

 
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