These days, Hank Aaron sometimes needs to find a chair at baseball receptions held in his honor. The Hammer, at 72, has to take a load off his feet. That's fair because he has carried more than his share of the sport's weight for more than 50 years.
Aaron's smile is still gentle and understated, his manner reserved yet accommodating. Nevertheless, there's always been pain in his face. And there's more now. In recent years Aaron says he has buried five brothers and sisters. That doesn't count the funerals of "all the old friends" he and his wife have attended in the last two years. Aaron muses quietly about these things, painful as they are, because they're part of life. However, he falls silent, diplomatic and noncommittal, as soon as the name of Barry Bonds is mentioned. Compared to steroids, BALCO, "the clear" and "the cream" and The Record, death is an easier topic.
Nobody in baseball, including Aaron, wants to think about Bonds stepping to the plate with a chance to hit a 756th home run. That moment is baseball's nightmare. "Aaron" is not only the first name in the record book, alphabetically, but for millions of fans, he also represents the game's apogee: a modest superstar and complete player.
Jackie Robinson endured more. But for Aaron, the pursuit of Babe Ruth's career home run record was terrible enough with its hate mail and death threats. Perhaps no American athlete ever broke a more significant record under greater social pressure with such consummate grace.
For that, you get tons of extra credit. And, frankly, you deserve better than to watch a guy such as Bonds, whose achievements have been tempered by suspicions that he used performance-enhancing drugs, break the record you set the old-fashioned way. Aaron wouldn't even switch leagues and become a designated hitter until he had passed Ruth's record with plenty of home runs to spare.
Does Bonds understand? Does he grasp that Aaron defined himself as much by the dignified manner in which he broke Ruth's record as by the record itself? Does Bonds get it? Does he grasp that he may define himself, and show his true (usually unappreciated) character, by the manner in which he graciously declines the crown of Home Run King?
For the past two years, with hints here and quotes there, Bonds has tested the waters, trying to feel his way toward the most difficult decision of his career. Now, finally, it's starting to look like Bonds may do the right thing — for baseball, Aaron, and, most of all, himself. Whether you like Bonds or not, root for him to be wise.
On Sunday, Bonds gave one of his periodic whiney, self-centered I'm-the-victim interviews (in USA Today) that have done so much to damage his credibility and his popularity. Few people are so utterly tone-deaf to their own voice. Bonds said he is tired of baseball. It isn't fun for him anymore because of "all the crap going on . . . Thank you for all your criticism. Thank you for dogging me."
Besides, Bonds added, he has no cartilage remaining in one knee. "I'm bone on bone," he said, which has led him to ingest "I can't even tell you how many" pain pills and sleeping pills. Bonds has said his father was an alcoholic and that he has a brother with drug problems, so flirting with dependencies should be a hereditary red flag. So, Bonds said, he would retire after the '06 season. If he did, he would presumably hit the seven homers necessary to pass Ruth, but not the 48 needed to surpass Aaron.
"I've never cared about records anyway," Bonds said, prompting laughter from 20 years of teammates.
"Maybe then everybody can just forget about me," said the man who has devoted his whole athletic life to becoming unforgettable yet who knows his sport wishes he would emulate Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro and disappear.
Later on Sunday, Bonds did what he usually does. After calling the maximum amount of attention to himself with his retirement quotes, he reversed himself. Why? To keep all his options open and call maximum attention to himself — again.
"If I can play [in '07], I'm going to play. If I can't, I won't. I'm playing psychological games with myself right now," Bonds said to another reporter. "So I go back and forth. Back and forth every day. . . . This is what I'm struggling with."
Henceforth, to make it simple for us to remember, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Bonds is retiring after this season. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, he'll play as long as he can. And, on the seventh day, weary from his struggle, he will rest.
For his whole career, Bonds has sabotaged himself whenever possible. Now, out of respect for Aaron, a contemporary of his father Bobby and his godfather Willie Mays, will Bonds finally find some common sense?
If Bonds retires with more homers than Ruth, but fewer than Aaron, he may be amazed at the gratitude the sport affords him. Most fans are awed by Bonds's achievements, no matter how they were accomplished. But those same fans are not suckers and don't like to be played for fools. Nobody has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bonds knowingly took steroids to boost his power. But what about "beyond a reasonable doubt?" For many fans, he's already way over that line.
"I love the game of baseball itself, but I don't like what it's turned out to be," Bonds said Sunday.
He can still change that. Bonds's love of the game is genuine, and his feats are gargantuan. He deserves a place near the top of the sport, but not at the very apex. If he settles for what he deserves, he may find his records, and his reputation, age quite well despite all the doubts that surround his methods.
But if he is determined to take down Aaron's record, if he grabs for what many doubt he has earned, then his sport and even his society may extract a lifetime of subtle retributions.