Bonds' chase a good time to glorify Aaron

Glorifying the career of Hank Aaron would be an ideal way to view Barry Bonds' chase of the all-time home run record in 2007.

Originally Published: February 1, 2007
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It is the most important number -- 755 -- not just in baseball history, but in all of sports. It is more recognizable than 60, 73, 3,000, .400, 500 or 56. But now, 755 is under attack from the greatest hitter that most of us have ever seen, one of the three greatest hitters of all time.

Under normal circumstances, if Barry Bonds were to break Hank Aaron's record for career home runs, we would carry him around on our shoulders in celebration, and we would say when he walked down the street, "there goes the best there ever was  other than Babe Ruth.'' But these circumstances are as abnormal as they get due to the obvious issue.

If Bonds hits 22 more home runs, he will be honored in San Francisco, but in other parts of the country, including in the office of the commissioner of baseball, it will be, at best, an awkward situation. It is really unfortunate for the game that it has come to this, and there are so many people to blame for it, starting with Bonds. There are people across America who would prefer to see him go away and never come back. But he won't, nor should he have to. And the game of baseball is in no position legally to make him disappear.

So maybe there is more than one way to view the chase for 755: It will give us the chance to examine, and glorify, the career of one of the greatest players in the game's history, Henry Louis Aaron. Bonds' passing of Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list last season dropped the Bambino to No. 3, but it did little to diminish the career of an enormous man, a legend who, by any statistical measure, is the greatest player ever to play.

Hank Aaron
AP PhotoHank Aaron launches home run No. 715 on April 8, 1974.
We came to know, and appreciate, the Babe a little more, and the same will happen with Hank Aaron. We will learn of his difficult journey to the major leagues, one filled with hatred, prejudice and ignorance. We will realize the tremendous impact he had on the Milwaukee Braves when he arrived from the Negro Leagues, lithe but strong, especially in his hands and wrists; in his first full season, at age 21, he hit .314 with 27 homers and 106 RBI. We will come to appreciate his remarkable durability -- his first 15 full seasons, he played in at least 145 games every year -- and his relentless consistency: no season with more than 47 homers, but eight years with at least 40. We will be told by those who saw him in his prime that he was one of the best defensive right fielders in the game.

We will understand that he stole 240 bases in his career and that he never struck out 100 times in a season. We'll hear of the 11th-inning home run he hit off of Billy Muffett on Sept. 23, 1957, sending the Braves to the World Series. We will re-live that night in Atlanta when he hit No. 715 off Al Downing. "When I got to home plate to give Hank the ball, he was crying,'' said Braves reliever Tom House, who caught the historic home run ball without moving an inch from his predetermined spot in the Atlanta bullpen. "I'd never seen him cry.''

Don't cry for Hank Aaron. His place in history never will be lost even if he falls to No. 2, his legacy will grow stronger because, most will say, he did it naturally. If Bonds hits homer No. 756, he will be the home run king. No asterisk will or should be affixed to it, no records will or should be taken away because baseball has never taken anyone's records away, we just attach a story to them, a story that will follow Bonds for the rest of his life. We need to give more credit to our finest baseball fans; they understand what happened in this era. And in a hundred years, our best fans will know what happened. It's a huge number -- 755 -- in a game built on numbers, but the number, not Hank Aaron, will be passed.

More milestones to keep an eye on

    Tom Glavine's 300th victory: He is 10 short, which he surely will reach this year. Glavine doesn't need 300 to make the Hall of Fame. He's already in on the strength of his two Cy Youngs, five 20-win seasons and incredible durability: zero trips to the disabled list in his career. Historian friend Rob Tracy, who studies stats for a living, has determined that Glavine is the ninth best left-hander of all time, slightly ahead of Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton. How's that for company? Ranked third on that list was Randy Johnson. The Big Unit needs 20 wins for 300. That might come in 2008.

    Craig Biggio
    Biggio

    Craig Biggio's 3,000th hit: He needs 70 hits to become the 26th player in history to reach 3,000. Biggio doesn't need 3,000 to make the Hall if you consider the power and the production at second base, the Gold Gloves, the durability, leadership and character, but without 3,000, he's going to have a hard time getting in in his the first year of eligibility. Clearly, Biggio is well past his prime, but he's still plenty good to get another 70 hits for the Astros.

    • 500 Home Run guys: There is a chance that five players will join the 500-Home Run Club this year, which would be a first. Frank Thomas is 13 away. Jim Thome is 28 away. Manny Ramirez is 30 away. Alex Rodriguez is 36 away. Gary Sheffield needs 45. This used to be an exclusive little club. Now it's up to 20. Soon, the 20 will become 25. In another 15 years, there are going to be 35. Get used to the growth.

    • 600-Home Run Club: With 12 more homers, Sammy Sosa will become just the fifth player in history to reach 600. Sosa didn't play at all last season, and hit just 14 home runs in 102 games for the Orioles in 2005.

    Trevor Hoffman
    Hoffman

    Trevor Hoffman's 500th save: The all-time save leader needs 18 more to become the first reliever in history to save 500 games -- not bad for a former Class A shortstop who became a pitcher after interpreting his manager's scouting report on him as something like "the guy is killing us.'' Hoffman doesn't need another save to make the Hall, but no closer should take the chance given that Goose Gossage is still not in, and he has the most victories, most strikeouts and most innings pitched of the 20 pitchers with 300 career saves.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.