Now here is Aaron, once again, this time in the midst of the galloping national hysteria over anabolic steroids. In Aaron, we have our cardboard hero, propped up in the corner to stand in exquisite counterpoint to Bonds. He is not the only one dragooned into this particular mess—"Ryan Howard, No Asterisk," went one preseason headline—but it is most certainly Aaron who is shouldering the psychic load. Even the flatness of his career, strangely, now earns him praise.
"[N]ot one of Aaron's single-season home run totals is among the 68 highest of all time, yet he pounded more in his career than any other player in history—and without suspicion of chemical enhancement," wrote Tom Verducci in this week's Sports Illustrated cover story, blithely sidestepping the very real possibility that Aaron popped amphetamines like Chiclets along with, you know, everyone else in baseball. To even consider that would, of course, call into question a rather large piece of the argument in favor of baseball's current war on steroids—Maintain the sanctity of the record books! Ferret out the cheats!—something sportswriters evidently have little interest in doing. Instead, they summon a hero from the past to redress the supposed sins of the present. "I guess," Reggie Jackson told Verducci, "you can call him the people's home run king."
Our national celebration of Aaron is, fundamentally, childish stuff. This is baseball telling fairy tales to itself, pretending the bad things away, using a Hall of Famer as a rhetorical bludgeon and in doing so diminishing the very man it pretends to exalt. There is a word for that. Undignified.
[Painting by Pete Sack]