Aaron, Bonds make great theater

It's a special privilege to spend time with Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds (on the same day).

Originally Published: September 1, 2004
By Joe Morgan | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note -- ESPN baseball analyst Joe Morgan is slated for an ESPN.com chat Friday at 10:30 a.m ET.

I've had many great experiences broadcasting ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, but this past Sunday's telecast was probably the most enjoyable ever for me.

Hank Aaron spent two innings in the booth with me and play-by-play man Jon Miller. And before the game, I was able to interview Barry Bonds for SportsCenter's Sunday Conversation. I'm close friends with both men, and it was a special privilege to spend time with them in conjunction with one broadcast.

Fans had the opportunity to see the other side of Aaron and Bonds. That was meaningful to me, because I've known them for so long, and I do see the other side.

In those two innings with Aaron, I think I learned more about his inner personality than in all the years I've talked with him about baseball. While we were on national television, it was a relaxed atmosphere and Aaron was himself. The all-time home-run king was open and honest about everything we asked him.

One question we asked was whether it bothered him that fans see him as a one-dimensional slugger. Aaron won two batting titles, three Gold Gloves (as a right fielder) and stole 240 bases. He was also an all-around clutch hitter. But fans tend to remember only the 755 homers.

In comparison to fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays, fans think of his multifaceted skills, with his 660 homers probably last on the list. Many fans and baseball experts consider Mays to be the greatest player ever -- myself included -- but Aaron usually isn't in the conversation. He should be, though.

Aaron-Mays? No Problem
The 70-year-old Aaron made the point that he played in Milwaukee (with the Braves) from 1954, his rookie year, until 1965, when the franchise moved to Atlanta. Naturally, there wasn't much publicity to be had in Milwaukee.

Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron heads to the dugout after hitting home run No. 714 to tie Babe Ruth on Opening Day, April 4, 1974 (at Riverfront Stadium vs. the Reds).
Meanwhile, Mays began his career with the Giants in New York in '51. So Mays had the benefit of the greater exposure afforded by New York's many newspapers.

When the Giants moved to San Francisco before the '58 season, Mays again was in a bigger media market than Milwaukee. Therefore, Mays received more attention. But it was clear to me that Aaron holds no grudges toward Mays or anyone else over that added publicity.

Aaron said that some people wanted to create a problem between him and Mays during their playing days. But Aaron said there was never a problem and that they were always good friends. By the way, both stars were born in Alabama.

I'm as guilty as anyone for giving Mays more credit than Aaron. That's because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and as a Giants fan I watched Mays play every day. I saw Mays far more than I saw Aaron.

In my pregame interview, Bonds also said he recognizes that Aaron hasn't gotten nearly enough credit -- either for holding the home-run record or for being the great all-around player he was.

What bothers me the most is that Hank Aaron has never received the credit he deserves for breaking the greatest record in baseball history. In fact, you could make a case that it's the greatest record in all of sports history.

Remember, commissioner Bowie Kuhn wasn't even present at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Aaron broke baseball's most hallowed record by hitting home run No. 715 on April 8, 1974. That is symbolic of the way Aaron has been treated by baseball.

Still, I told Aaron on the air that just as he passed Babe Ruth and yet Ruth has not been pushed aside, whomever passes Aaron will never push him aside either.

For the Record
On the subject of Bonds, Aaron said that what makes the 40-year-old such a great hitter is that he's able to recognize pitches quickly (which was also true of Aaron).

On the subject of Bonds' march toward 714 and then to 755, Aaron said that records are made to be broken. I wouldn't expect that he wants Bonds to break his record, but if it's inevitable, maybe someone will break the new record someday.

Aaron said he wouldn't travel with Bonds if he approaches the record, though, because at 70 years old he doesn't like to fly much these days.

Aaron marveled at how Bonds keeps producing without being surrounded by other accomplished hitters.
While Aaron was in the booth, Bonds hit home run No. 695, and Aaron said it was the longest ball he'd seen hit at Atlanta's Turner Field (it was measured at 467 feet). The only homer hit farther at Turner was a Sammy Sosa home run (471 feet), and Aaron wasn't at the ballpark for that one.

In his next at-bat, Bonds hit another homer, No. 696, and it traveled 462 feet. Bonds is that much closer to being just the third player to hit 700 career home runs.

When I interviewed Bonds before the game, he said he gets hyped up to play in Atlanta since it's Aaron's hometown -- due to the respect he has for Aaron. Then he went out and hit two home runs and drove in six runs in the Giants' victory over the Braves.

Bonds' dramatic day was another enjoyable element of the broadcast -- from the time I got to the stadium to the last out, it was fantastic!

Bonds said he has his game face on now. When he retires, he'll be able to relax and smile more. But now he's focused on being the best player he can be and helping the Giants win a World Series.

Aaron, meanwhile, marveled at how Bonds keeps producing without being surrounded by other accomplished hitters. Aaron noted that he always had good hitters around him -- guys like Eddie Mathews (the 500-homer guy who hit behind him), Joe Torre, Orlando Cepeda and Rico Carty. Aaron said he didn't know how he'd react if he had been walked as much as Bonds.

Positives Outweigh Negatives
We've all heard about the racial slurs and the hate mail and the death threats that Aaron received as he pursued Babe Ruth's record. Aaron wouldn't stay in the same hotel as the Braves so people couldn't find him and so he could keep the distractions away from his teammates.

But there was also a positive side -- Aaron got great letters from kids and from other fans who were pulling for him. I've seen his eyes light up when he talks about the encouraging letters he received.

The positive part of that history-making experience was more important to him -- it made more of an impact on him than the negative part, I believe.

Aaron got great letters from kids and from other fans who were pulling for him.
When you're the target of hate mail, it's tough to forget. But there's also a smile that comes with the fans' encouragement. So while it's hard to forget, Aaron has moved on. It's in the back of his mind, but he has moved on past all of that -- and that's great to see.

One of my closest friends is basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell, and Russell still has scars from painful things that happened to him in Boston. But one positive can outweigh about five negatives.

Aaron is close friends with commissioner Bud Selig, because he played for the Selig-owned Milwaukee Brewers in his final two years (in 1975 and '76). Several years ago, when a number of African-Americans (including myself) were trying to get Major League Baseball to consider more minority candidates as managers, Aaron was instrumental in the process.

We all sat in Selig's office -- me, Aaron, Frank Robinson, Leonard Coleman and Rachel Robinson (Jackie Robinson's widow) -- and Aaron was a major part of the discussion. He does tremendous work behind-the-scenes to help minorities in baseball, in other sports, in business and in other endeavors.

Chasing Dreams
Aaron's generosity also impresses me. He's allowed all his trophies and awards to be displayed in the Hall of Fame.

He considers it more important for fans to be able to see those historic items than for him to display them in his home (the Hall has special displays for Aaron, Ruth and others). As the Hall's vice chairman, I can tell you that the Hall of Fame appreciates that.

Furthermore, Aaron's generosity is evident in his Chasing a Dream Foundation.

On the air, he explained that as a kid growing up, he dreamed of being a baseball player. Now he wants to make it possible for other kids who are chasing their dreams to achieve them. It isn't just about baseball -- it might be music or acting or another sport ... any dream.

For example, Aaron has supported 17-year-old tennis player Scoville Jenkins of Atlanta. In the opening round of the U.S. Open, Jenkins played on the biggest stage in American tennis against Andy Roddick, the defending U.S. Open champion (losing in straight sets).

Aaron is also a great entrepreneur. He owns several car dealerships and a couple of food franchises, and he's opening a new BMW dealership in Augusta, Ga. this month. Despite all this success, Aaron remains a behind-the-scenes guy -- in public, he doesn't really push his image.

For both Bonds and Aaron, there is no need to push their images or seek publicity, because their places in baseball history are secure.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.

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