Roughly an hour before I sat down to write this, Barry Bonds Tweeted out an ode to Hank Aaron, who has passed at age 86.
Bonds (or his handler — if he still has a handler) wrote this:
I want to send my heartfelt and warmest condolences to the Aaron family on their loss today. I was lucky enough to spend time with Hank on several occasions during my career and have always had the deepest respect and admiration for all that he did both on and off the field. He is an icon, a legend and a true hero to so many, who will forever be missed.
Hank Aaron – thank you for everything you ever taught us, for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ball players who came after you. Being able to grow up and have the idols and role models I did, help shape me for a future I could have never dreamed of. Hank’s passing will be felt by all of us who love the game and his impact will forever be cemented in my heart.
As a man who covered much of Barry Bonds’ career, as well as the author of his biography, I would like to counter with my own statement:
I want to send my heartfelt and angriest sentiments to Barry Bonds, who was everything the great Hank Aaron was not. On a personal level, Hank Aaron was gracious, kind, warm-hearted, decent. Barry Bonds, on the other hand, was cruel, petty, mean.
Hank Aaron went out of his way to make the lives of those around him better. Barry Bonds went out of his way to make the lives of those around him more difficult. He had a perverse way of rejoicing when others struggled. I will always remember Hank Aaron holding court for the media before the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park — laughing, smiling, giving in-depth and thoughtful answers to every question.
I will always remember Barry Bonds refusing to donate an autographed bat or ball to help raise money for the families of two construction workers who were killed while working on Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Afterward, Pete Diana — the Pirates team photographer — spoke to me of Bonds’ viciousness, and said, bluntly and emotionlessly, “I hope Barry Bonds dies.”
Hank Aaron was the perfect teammate. Barry Bonds was an awful teammate. Hank Aaron was humility personified. Barry Bonds was arrogance personified.
For me, however, what separates the two men is what — historically — ties them together. In the leadup to breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, Hank Aaron received an endless stream of death threats via letters and calls (both to his home and the Atlanta Braves’ offices). He was a black man playing in the Deep South, and plenty of Americans recoiled at the idea of the immortal Bambino being reduced to secondary status behind some negro. Yet Aaron — strong, intense, prideful, wise — remained undeterred. He knew there could be a gunman in the stands, or an attacker waiting by his car or outside his home. The great slugger, however, refused to cower.
When, on April 8, 1974, Aaron blasted home run No. 715, a baseball mark immediately transformed into a civil rights mark. The number transcended sports, and came to represent the overcoming of oppression; the ongoing fight for equality. His career total — 755 — was the greatest record of all great records.
Then, Barry Bonds came along.
He began cheating in the mid-to-late 1990s, pumping his body with all sorts of steroids and HGH, though he alleged he had no idea what he was being given. When asked, he would deny and deny and deny. It was all diet. Flaxseed oil. Working out. Being hard.
Then, on Aug. 7, 2007, Bonds hit his 756th home run—a cartoonishly juiced man “making history” even though history shrugged. I was there the night the mark was broken, and while the fans went crazy and Bonds’ family members engulfed him in hugs, it was akin to complimenting a person with gobs of plastic surgery how young she looks.
It felt empty.
Aaron (wisely) refused to attend, and, at the urging of Major League Baseball, issued a halfhearted video statement congratulating the new home run king. Sitting in the stadium, watching the recording, I found myself overcome with rage. I thought of all Aaron went through, of all he had to overcome, of the righteousness of a man and the significance of a record.
Then I thought of Barry Bonds — physically large, yet smaller than a gnat.
He wiped 755 from the record books.
Hank Aaron, though, forever remains the king.
Jeff Pearlman is the author of “Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Anti-Hero.”