For the entire season, and especially this last week, sports media has inundated us with memories of Hank Aaron, usually with the goal to prove Aaron’s dominance over the soon to be homerun champ, Barry Bonds.
Really, what we often end up with, is a comparison of the two men’s eras. What Bonds and Aaron have in common is that their chase of the record was met with mixed reactions from the fans and media. They both somehow represent the major issues of their eras. Aaron came up in a league still struggling to desegregate; at the time of his retirement twenty years later, desegregation was still a major issue, with school busing the controversial topic of the day. Bonds, on the other hand, plays when the major issue in baseball is steroids, and the league’s silence about it as it ran rampant for the bulk of Bonds’ career.
What causes the image of Bonds to pale in comparison to the image of Aaron is their reactions/parts in their respective controversies. Aaron had to fight adversity from the beginning, simply because of the color of his skin. In the minor leagues, he had to be escorted through the parking lot after every game with a teammate carrying a bat. How many times this week have we seen the clip of Aaron hitting number 715, and heard Vin Scully marveling about a black man getting a standing ovation in the Deep South?
While Aaron is seen as a figure of resilience and steadfast dedication against attitudes of hatred; Bonds is a figure much more pitiable. Many make Bonds out to be the leader of the steroids scandal, which is an unfair portrait. That title is probably more deservedly placed on Canseco, maybe even McGwire. Some insiders have said that Bonds didn’t start using until after McGwire and Sosa went on their famous homerun chase of 1998. The story goes that watching those two get all the glory, and knowing that they weren’t clean, pushed Bonds over the threshold. After all, what good is being the best clean hitter in baseball if no one else recognizes it?
So perhaps we ought to be painting Bonds as a victim of his time. Everyone else was using, and so he did too. And while some of you may accuse me of being too sympathetic toward Bonds; I disagree. Because Bonds still allowed himself to become that victim; something that Hammerin’ Hank Aaron never did.