Barry Bonds's pursuit of a record-setting 756th home run is supremely awkward for Major League Baseball, as one of the game's most hallowed records falls to one of its least loved superstars. And it should be awkward, given MLB's see-no-evil attitude toward performance-enhancing substances during Bonds's heyday. But this is also an occasion to reflect on greatness - athletic and human.
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One could take the view, as do some who are urging celebration of Bonds's probably steroid-fueled achievements, that the two are quite separable: that the slugger's contemptuous treatment of other people and manifest lack of integrity should not diminish our admiration for the amazing things he has done with a ball and bat. In a world populated by other flawed record-breakers such as Mark McGwire and Pete Rose, this is certainly realistic.
Perhaps it's worth noting, though, that the man whose record Mr. Bonds is poised to break never adopted such a standard. "The way to fame is like the way to heaven," Henry Louis Aaron said upon his induction to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1982. "Through much tribulation ... I stand here today because God gave me a healthy body, a sound mind and talent. For 23 years I took the talent that God gave me and developed it to the best of my ability."
Hank Aaron dared to say something like that because it was true. He did not cut any corners, and no one cut him any slack. Born during the Great Depression, Aaron learned baseball by hitting bottle caps with a stick on the streets and sandlots of Mobile, Ala. He attended segregated schools and suffered racial ostracism as a minor leaguer in the Deep South during the early 1950s. His greatest moment as a big leaguer, breaking Babe Ruth's career home run mark in 1974, was almost spoiled by death threats from racists.
Aaron endured all of this and fought back, becoming a pioneer advocate for greater inclusion of minorities in baseball's executive suites, as well as a successful businessman in his own right. He has consistently given back to the community through charitable activity and inspirational talks with young people. There is a reason that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush invited him to the White House and awarded him medals of honor: They wanted to bask in the reflected glory of a man who was not only a great ballplayer but a great American. That kind of record can never be broken.
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