Sunday, February 28, 2010

Welcome Back, Big Mac

"Grace under pressure" is a well-worn phrase, and I do not use it lightly. But those are the three words that come to mind when I recall Henry Aaron's pursuit of Babe Ruth's career homerun record.

In 1973, as Aaron approached the record, Newsweek ran a cover story on the racial insults he endured. As a 13-year-old white boy in a small northern town who had never interacted with African Americans, it was jarring to read of the torrent of abuse streaming into Hammerin' Hank's mailbox. To this day, I remember that one of letters began simply with the words "Dear Nigger" - as if Henry Aaron were not even a person, but just an embodiment of a perceived threat to white supremacy.

Aaron passed the Babe in April 1974 and added forty more homeruns before retiring. Today, at 76, he remains one of the game's greatest ambassadors.

This week, Aaron made news by affirming Mark McGwire's admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs as a player. In 1998, McGwire's pursuit of Roger Maris's single-season homerun record, with Sammy Sosa right behind, had thrilled the nation - and provided balm in baseball Gilead after the painful players' strike resulted in cancellation of the World Series in 1994.

McGwire retired under a steriods cloud in 2001 and fumbled his way awkwardly through a congressional hearing in 2005. This season, however, he's back in baseball, as the St. Louis Cardinal's hitting coach, hired by his former manager, Tony LaRussa.

In endorsing McGwire's conscience-clearing statement, Aaron used the language of forgiveness.

"[T]his is the most forgiving country in the world. If you come through and tell the truth, then you're going to be forgiven."

So Big Mac is back - and as Hammerin' Hank says, that's a good thing. More players should follow McGwire's lead and come clean about their own use of banned substances.

Number one on the in-need-of-confession list is of course the man who passed Aaron for the most career homeruns and McGwire for the most in a single season. Barry Bonds still faces charges of lying to a federal grand jury, after testifying in 2003 he never knowingly used steroids.

Aaron did not mention Bonds in his statement. Instead, he answered with humility and humor when reporters suggested that many people still refer to him as as the homerun king.

"Regardless of what happened, I'm not going to hit another home run. Not in this world. I may do it somewhere else. I don't think I can hit anybody deep. I think my deep is over with. The only thing I can hit is a golf ball — all over the place."

That's so true about golf. Indeed, Sam Snead told Ted Williams that it's harder than baseball, because you have to play your foul balls. But this is an apples and oranges comparison, because a golf ball doesn't come at you at nearly 100 mph, as a MLB fastball does.

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