Just five years ago this month, Hank Aaron, the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves great, lost his title to a cheater. Five years ago this month, during the so-called “Steroid Era”, Major League Baseball’s home run king (with 755), who passed the immortal Babe Ruth‘s record of 714 home runs in 1974 with such grace and humility, was himself passed by a dour, self-centered, ego-filled, bloated-cartoon-character-looking Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.
Bonds cheated. No doubt about it. But so did hundreds, maybe thousands, of baseball players of that era. That doesn’t mean you and I have to recognize him as baseball’s home run king.
Bonds was a great player BEFORE he started using “the cream and the clear”. Believe me, NO ONE gets better with age…unless they are using something. Dara Torres, the U.S. 50-meter swimmer, MAY be the exception to that rule, but in baseball…no one gets better with age.
If that was NOT the case, we would certainly see more players improving their batting averages, RBI totals, home run totals, etc. as they age. It just doesn’t happen. No player in history – from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Willie Mays to Hank Aaron – has improved his numbers after reaching the age of 35. You can call Bonds a freak of nature…but I call him a cheater.
Injuries take MORE time to recover from as we age. That’s a simple fact. Using steroids helps you recover quicker from injuries. Another fact.
On that historic day, even Aaron continued to show his grace. While not attending the game against the Washington Nationals in San Francisco’s beautiful PacBell Park, he was shown on the video board offering congratulations.
“It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity and determination,” Aaron said. “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 how and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historic achievement.
“My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1874, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
And Bonds himself, may have said it best after seeing the 10-minute video. “When I saw Hank Aaron, that made everything. We’ve always loved him. He’s always the home run king.”
Call me cynical, but Bonds (and yes, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco to name names…among others) cheated. I will say this, however, it was very exciting to see these men hit prodigious home runs (“Chicks Dig The Long Ball”) and in tremendous numbers. The race between McGwire and Sosa was fun…it brought people to the ballparks and eyeballs to television. I remember calling my son after McGwire hit home run number 63. I was watching on the West Coast (on yet another business trip) and he was watching at home in Maryland. It certainly gave us a lot to talk about.But let’s remember one thing…they cheated.
Ask most members of the Hall of Fame why Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the best players in the history of the game, is NOT in the Hall. They’ll say, “He cheated.” (By the way, ESPN wrote an article on the 10 biggest cheaters in MBL history…and Jackson is NOT among them. Here’s the link: espn.go.com/page2/s/list/cheaters/ballplayers.html
Next year, when some of the biggest names of the Steroid Era come up for voting into the Hall, none will make it. Yes, the Hall has members who were not so nice (Ty Cobb, for one) and some who admitted to throwing spitballs (Gaylord Perry)…but with the use of steroids, that took cheating to another level.
To me, Hank Aaron is THE Home Run King…he did it with grace and humility. And, in a tip of the cap to the good old days, one of the nice things about the footage of him breaking the old home run mark was seeing several fans actually running the bases with him, slapping him on the back. No, that really wasn’t allowed, but they were not tackled or shot at by a stun gun. It was a simpler time. A more civil time. Henry Aaron exemplified the time perfectly.