Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

By Jeff Kallman

A man who used to hold baseball's career bomb record, after earning it the hard enough way, shouldn't require much effort to convince people that, try though they might, it's an exercise in futility to suggest it can be stripped from his successor — something whose possibility Bud Selig is pondering aloud — without an awful lot of difficulty, and maybe twice that much contortion.

Enough people wish it had been ABB (Anyone But Bonds) who bumped Hank Aaron to one side, but trying to strip Himself of the record may equal in futility mining coal with a fingernail. Strip Barry Bonds, Aaron tells Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Terence Moore, and "you'd have to go back and change all kinds of records, and the record was very important to me.

"It's probably the most hallowed record out there, as far as I'm concerned," Aaron continued, "but it's now in the hands of somebody else. It belongs to Barry. No matter how we look at it, it's his record, and I held it for a long time. But my take on all of this has always been the same. I'm not going to say that Barry's got it because of this or because of that, because I don't know."

The three toughest words in the English language to enunciate when it comes to Bonds, and any or everyone else suspected or demonstrated to have used actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, and what they might or might not have done, really, beyond enhancing musculature, advancing recuperation, replenishing what's normally found in your body, what have you. I don't know.

What we do know is that Bonds was in fact what one writer merely speculated Roger Maris to have been, on the night Maris tried but failed to meet and pass Babe Ruth's single-season home run mark within then-commissioner Ford Frick's insouciantly ignorant "legitimate" seasonal deadline: He was not what we wanted in a record-breaker.

Beyond the baseball ghost they chased and conquered, Maris and Aaron shared a plainness that would have been seen as virtuous in other times and places. Private, unpretentious men, Maris and Aaron were neither glib nor spotlight hungry, vaporizing a ghost whose achievements were as outsized as the posthumous ribaldry by which he'd be remembered for flaunting boorishness and vices that would inspire demands for public drawing and quartering when shown by players nowadays.

That ghost co-provoked an American League rules change (Ken Williamson was his fellow provocateur) after he was caught using a bat pieced together from four distinct slabs of wood. He even used a corked bat now and then, never mind that it's as often as not difficult to prove a corked bat equals a power surge. But nobody demanded Babe Ruth's records be erased over that.

"Once you start down the road of erasing records," writes William C. Rhoden, the longtime New York Times baseball essayist, "there's no coming back." And, as Rhoden reminds us, no one's been calling for erasing the records prior to Jackie Robinson's advent, never mind whether Ty Cobb wouldn't have set the stolen base records he set but for Cool Papa Bell's disallowance from major league play; whether Ruth wouldn't have set his home run records but for Josh Gibson's disallowance. And no one's been calling for erasing the records set by the Greenie Generation of the 1960s and 1970s.

"In all fairness to everybody," Aaron told Moore, "I just don't see how you really can do a thing like that and just say somebody isn't the record holder anymore, and let's go back to the way that it was."

Rhoden notes some seem to hope for moving the line of demarcation back to the season in which Aaron smashed Ruth's career bomb record; or, back to the season in which Ruth dropped his final major league bomb. For several seasons there were those who hoped to see the single-season home run record rolled back to 1961, back into Maris's compromised possession, minus the shameful performance of Frick the one-time Ruth ghost writer.

Bonds all but invited the furies upon him as he chased, caught, and cast Aaron to one side, his misanthropic personality possibly inviting as many to cringe and cry the closer he got to passing Aaron even if he'd never been suspected of anything above the level or legality of a vitamin pill, even if he'd never faced perjury charges over the BALCO grand jury.

Neither plain nor unpolished, Bonds from nearly the beginning of his major league career behaved as though baseball was his entitlement and its record books, his birthright. Not even their worst opponents or most venal hate mailers could have accused Maris or Aaron of indecency or outsized entitlement senses and made the charges stick.

If we don't really know what actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances did or didn't do for Himself, above or beyond musculature enhancement, do we have the call to ask for something that could compromise statistics, the life blood of baseball, even worse than the steroid era is so widely thought to have done?

"It's probably the most hallowed record out there, as far as I'm concerned," Aaron told Moore, "but it's now in the hands of somebody else. It belongs to Barry."

Suppose the broken records in question had been not the home run records but, say, Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. It almost was, in 1978, a decade before we learned the sort of clay from which were made Pete Rose's feet. (And, maybe, his head.) And two decades plus before we learned the sort from which were made the Clipper's.

At least for one period of 36 years, and another of 34 years, the hallowed home run records were held by two decent enough men out of the six who've held the records as we've known it, men who didn't ask for the nightmare into which their lives were made by others who thought, for venal enough reasons of their own, that they had no business even thinking about meeting, greeting, and beating the Babe.

Maybe that's the real reason so many people have wished the hallowed home run records could be restored to Maris and Aaron. They didn't ask for the pressure under which they approached and broke them, neither man believed he had a birthright to do so, and the one enough of us think remains the legitimate home run king has made his pronouncement.

Says King Henry, and with apologies to the Rolling Stones: you can't always get what you want.

Whether you're the one breaking the record, or whether you'll be among the ones watching it fall once again, possibly at some time over the next nine years. The time remaining on Alex Rodriguez's Yankee contract.

PASSAGES

TED UHLAENDER, 68 — Center fielder for the 1965-69 Minnesota Twins; brought up too late to play on the Twins' 1965 World Series team; more of a defensive asset (lifetime fielding percentage: .991; lifetime range factor: .25+ to his league) than a hitting asset (he often didn't have a set position in his lineups, batting anywhere from third to eighth), though he was a tough strikeout (lifetime strikeouts per 162 games: 50), Uhlaender's best season was 1968, when he finished fifth in the American League with a .285 batting average and among the top 10 in at-bats per strikeout (10.6). He went 1-for-2 in the 1972 National League Championship Series with the Cincinnati Reds and 1-for-4 in the World Series; he also played for the Cleveland Indians (traded with Graig Nettles and pitchers Dean Chance and Bob Miller---as in, one of the 1962 Mets' two Bob Millers---for pitchers Luis Tiant and Stan Williams).

Uhlaender died of a heart attack on Valentine's Day following a long battle with bone marrow cancer. A longtime coach for several major league teams and their organizations, he was also the father of U.S. Olympic skeleton competitor Katie Uhlaender, who finished the World Cup season last week with a silver medal.

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