Remember how Aaron’s career achievements were portrayed as Bonds obliterated baseball’s geriatric slugging standards and ultimately a nation’s believability? Compared with a 37-year-old who clubbed 73 home runs in 2001, Aaron was mildly derided as an earnest toiler who never hit 50 in any one of his 23 major league seasons.I thought I followed the Bonds HR chase pretty closely, and, well, I don't really remember anyone saying anything even mildly negative about Aaron. Do you?
It's from a NYT piece by Harvey Araton, earlier this week. Overall, it's really a mess. He talks a lot, and alludes even more, to steroids...regular readers will know that I don't consider the use of steroids by A-Rod and (presumably) Bonds any different, in ethical terms, from the use of stimulants by virtually every player since the 1960s. So there's that.
But if it was all, I probably wouldn't have written an item about it. There's the "mildly derided" thing (about which more below). There's the idea that Rodriguez may achieve the record, but that he might not be "physically superior" to Aaron by the time he gets there, by which Araton seems to mean that while Aaron surged in his late 30s, Rodriguez is beginning his decline. Well, that's one way to look at it. Another way is that there's a lot of park and league illusions there...Aaron moved out of the dead ball 1960s and into the Launching Pad (as the Braves ballpark in Atlanta was known). A-Rod moved out of Arlington and also out of the 60 HR era (because of steroids? Could be. We don't know). But no question, Rodriguez is having his worst year this year at age 34, OPS+ of only 119, after losing a bunch of games the previous two years to injuries. But yes, Aaron basically sustained his peak through 1973, his age 39 season, although the next year, when he broke the record (in April) was very ordinary, followed by two mediocre years in Milwaukee.
So, yes, Rodriguez might get the record as "40-something designated hitter, hanging on as much for the record as for his paycheck." Or it may be that this year will be a fluke, and he still has three or four 40 HR seasons remaining. Or perhaps he really is on the sharp decline, and he'll be out of baseball in three years without reaching 700, much less 762. I don't know...seems to me that if he gets it, he gets it.
At any rate, and sorry if I'm rambling a little, that "mildly derided as an earnest toiler" business? I really didn't hear any of that during the Bonds chase. But I do think there was plenty back in the 1970s. I agree with the conventional wisdom, there; Henry Aaron wasn't "supposed" to be the one to get the record. It was supposed to be Willie Mays. After all, Babe Ruth was the greatest player ever and had the most famous record in baseball, and Henry Aaron, well, wasn't the greatest player ever. Oh, he was terrific, an inner-circle HOFer, and almost certainly the second-best RF ever. But Mays was just a better player (and don't forget, had he not missed two years for military service Mays might have hit the record first, although he wouldn't have reached 755). And that's not counting the New York sportswriters who idolized Mays.
Which gets me to my final complaint about the article. Here's how it ends:
Even as his slugging indicators have dipped, Rodriguez is still among the leaders this season in runs batted in. But if the coming act, post-35, looks more like the aging Mays than the amazing Aaron, the lingering question will be this: just how much of his prime-career performance was improperly enhanced?The aging Mays? This is one of the great myths of all time. Remember that last great Aaron season? That was age 39. But his age 40 season was just OK, and then he was pretty useless as a DH the next two years. Willie Mays had his last great season at age 40. That was 1971. He wasn't as good a hitter in his late 30s as Aaron, but I'll take a CF with a 158 OPS+. Even the next year, age 41, in which he was traded to the Mets, he still was pretty useful: as a part-time player (400 OBP 402 SLG, and a bit better than that after the trade). Only in his final season, at age 42, did he really stink. One season. Compared to two, for Aaron.. Hey, it was horribly unfair that Aaron had to seek the record against not only the racist ugliness, but also the ugliness of New York sportswriters who thought that someone else deserved it. But for whatever it's worth, Aaron has had a measure of revenge in the entirely phony reputations they had for how they ended their careers.
Aaron, meanwhile, will remain baseball’s prime example of how to age with a pure and potent grace.
That is: it's easy to see how to be a "prime example of how to age with a pure and potent grace." Whatever else you do, never, never, never arranged to return to New York for your final years. Instead, go to Milwaukee. No question about it.