© AP Photo/David Goldman
Hank Aaron looks on during a ceremony presenting him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, by the Consul General of Japan at his official residence Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in Atlanta. Japan has honored the former home run king with one of its highest awards, bestowing the Order of the Rising Sun for bringing young people and countries together through baseball.
The hair has been conquered by grey. He uses a cane to get around, always moving at a very measured pace.
Hank Aaron is in his 80s now. He's not going to be hitting any more long balls.
He's still the king, no matter what the record book says.
Before we go on, this is not an attempt to rewrite history or indict Barry Bonds, who sits atop the career homer list with 762. Sure, he undoubtedly hit at least eight of those - and probably many, many more - while performance-enhancing drugs were coursing through a body that inexplicably grew more massive and muscular as he aged. To many (and count us in that group), Aaron's 755 remains the legitimate record.
But it really doesn't matter.
Certainly not to Aaron.
He wouldn't join the debate on that night more than eight years ago when his mark fell, sending along a warm, congratulatory message that was shown on the video board in San Francisco not long after Bonds touched home plate.
He won't now, as the dreary depths of another winter are softened by the hope of spring training just over a month away.
“Records are made to be broken,” he said again this week. “I did my share, whatever I could do, and that's it.”
During one of his increasingly rare public appearances, Hammerin' Hank made it clear he doesn't need records to define his legacy.
“I don't think about that too much now,” Aaron said after receiving one of Japan's highest honours, the Order of the Rising Sun. “As I tell a lot of people, 'I'm never going to hit another home run.' Not on this leg” - a reference to his difficulty walking since a partial left-hip replacement nearly two years ago. “I'm never going to play baseball again. Whoever holds that record now, they can share it or say it's theirs. That's fine.”
Bonds will surely never share his record, but that does nothing to diminish the courage Aaron showed in the face of racial hatred while chasing Babe Ruth's record, nor the racial barriers he helped to break down after moving south with the Braves during the turbulent 1960s, nor the grace he continues to display.
“Here we have a truly living legend,” said U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat who is Aaron's brother-in-law. “Make no mistake about it. Hank Aaron is truly a God-blessed man and a God-sent man, sent by God almighty here to do what they said never, never could be done: the breaking of Babe Ruth's record. But that isn't all the story.”
Really, it's just a small part of it.
While Bonds has always tried to come across as a victim, someone who was singled out by those jealous of his accomplishments and put off by his surly behaviour, he can't even begin to imagine the hatred Aaron endured on his way to taking down the Babe's record of 714 homers.
“It's not a matter of him breaking the record,” Scott said. “It's what he had to go through to break that record. Babe Ruth is a wonderful person, and made great contributions to baseball. But Babe Ruth did not have the Ku Klux Klan on his back. Babe Ruth did not have death threats on his back. So ... when you measure the greatness of Hank Aaron, it's not just in those 715 homers he hit to break that record, and the 755 he went on to hit. ”
As for Bonds' 762 homers and other marks tainted by the disgraceful steroids era, Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it clear there won't be any changes to the record book.
Not even an asterisk.
“I think it's important to show a lot of respect for record books as they have been written. I think that when you breach the area of adjusting records or putting asterisks on that, you start down a road that you don't want to start down,” Manfred told journalist Marvin Kalb during an appearance last fall at the National Press Club. “There have been different eras in the game where there were different things that affected the numbers. The dead-ball era. And a period of time where people assume or know that people were using steroids.”
Manfred won't be bestowing any honorary titles, either. To those who say Aaron is the true home run king, the commissioner would only say, “I know that the individual who has hit the most home runs in the history of baseball is Barry Bonds.”
Hammerin' Hank is still the king.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press.