Thank you, Hank Aaron

When the outgoing home run king offered "congratulations" to Barry Bonds, everybody in AT&T Park exhaled.

Published August 8, 2007 9:00PM (EDT)

My mother made sure we were all watching television when Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth in April 1974. She wasn't any kind of political activist, but she'd been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and a Jackie Robinson fan, and she knew what was going on as Aaron approached Babe Ruth's record. She and her mother made me the baseball fan I am today.

Tuesday would have been my mother's 77th birthday, and that's the day Barry Bonds broke Aaron's home run record. It made a lot of difference to me that Aaron taped that "Congratulations" video for when Bonds broke his record. Do I think it's the same as his showing up like Bonds' godfather Willie Mays did? No. But it's meaningful nonetheless. The whole crowd exhaled. "It meant everything," Bonds said later. "It was absolutely the best."

Yes, I'm going to play personal cards here because baseball is personal for me, thanks to my mother. I know people despise Bonds, but I care about him. He has been the hero of my midlife baseball romance, from 1993 to today (especially in those great Dusty Baker years through 2002). I have said all I have to say about his accomplishments and about his detractors. He's part of the steroid generation, I'm aware. There are so many mediocre players now out of baseball, even players I loved -- Marvin Benard! Armando Rios! -- likewise accused of steroid use. I don't know what to make of it all. I just know I loved what Bonds did tonight. It was magic for everyone there, but especially for me, because I wasn't meant to be at this game.

I volunteered to edit our Democratic debate coverage, but I got overruled by my great staff. I had tickets Monday night with my daughter but Bonds didn't do it; she had tickets with one of her best friends Tuesday night, and I kissed her goodbye and said, "I hope he does it tonight" and went back to blogging the debate. The phone started ringing off the hook as I was finishing, and it was Nora, telling me someone had mysteriously given her an extra ticket, and I should get down to the ballpark immediately. I did. Anyone with a teenager knows how great it feels when they do something unexpected to make you happy, and you begin to imagine the silver linings of the generational handoff that's just up the road.

So I was there when I wasn't supposed to be, when Bonds broke the record, and I'm very grateful. Meanwhile, letters are pouring in on my Obama-Bonds item. I really do understand the mixed feelings people have, about Bonds and that item too. I give Bonds the benefit of the doubt. I do it because I care about the underdog, and I do it because I live in San Francisco and he's improved my life as a baseball fan. Apart from all the controversy, there were unexpected poignant moments in the evening. My second favorite was the post-game interview with the pitcher who surrendered the home run, Mike Bacsik, who gave an admirable shrug to the way he earned a place in history. Like Bonds, Bacsik grew up with a father who was a baseball player -- amazingly, a pitcher who faced Aaron when he had 755 home runs, but didn't give up 756. Bacsik compared his bond with his father to Bonds', who choked up talking about Bobby Bonds after his historic home run. "He's my best friend," Bacsik said about his dad. He said Bonds told him, "You're gonna be a good pitcher and I'm gonna enjoy watching you in future years."

But my favorite part was watching Bonds praise his mother in the press conference after the game. I've met Pat Bonds; she's integral to his charitable work; she has endured a lot. He told the crowd she drove him to school and Little League when his father was absent. I'm sure people who think Bonds is a monster weren't moved by his thoughts on his mother; but I was. Anyone approaching the Bonds story with an open mind has plenty to balance today. I'm just glad my daughter found me a ticket; to me that's part of the magic of baseball. From Bonds' parents, in their own way, to him; from mine to me, from me to my daughter and from my daughter back to me. I'm grateful for all of it.

By Joan Walsh

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