Birthday a reminder that Aaron, Alomar each a treat
Hall of Fame duo worthy of our admiration share special date
Happy birthday wishes go out today to a pair of Hall of Famers who enriched the game with superlative talent and grace: the incomparable Hank Aaron and the brilliant Roberto Alomar.
On my all-time team, Aaron is the right fielder, with Willie Mays in center and Babe Ruth in left. While he doesn't crack the supreme lineup -- Jackie Robinson is my eternal second baseman -- Alomar is in the conversation. No. 42 forever stands alone as the man who changed society and was the greatest athlete the sport has seen, with all due respect to Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and all the others.
Aaron, who turns 81 with characteristic dignity, is best known for breaking Ruth's hallowed home run record. But Hank was a total player, magnificent in every phase of the game. Only Mays, with a nod to his genius defensively and on the bases, holds the edge, a very slight one at that, as the greatest player these eyes have seen.
It was my great fortune to be in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974, when Aaron launched No. 715 off the Dodgers' Al Downing to eclipse the Bambino. It has no equal as the most memorable sports moment of my life.
Aaron's private turmoil over hate mail and death threats wasn't widely known at the time, but I got a hint before the game that cold night in a conversation with Dusty Baker. The Braves' dynamic young center fielder confided that his teammate and role model was determined to "get it over with" for deeply personal reasons that eventually became evident.
Baker was in the on-deck circle, raising his arm in triumph, as Aaron's drive carried over the fence in left-center into the grasp of Braves reliever Tom House.
What I recall from the postgame news conference was Aaron's visible relief. Never one to pound his chest, his reserved manner was no surprise. But there was more to it than that. At the moment of his greatest achievement, Aaron felt more like a survivor than a conquering hero.
Aaron held the home run record, finishing at 755, for 33 years before it was seized by Barry Bonds. In the minds of many, Aaron remains the king.
The amazing thing about Henry Louis Aaron, from Mobile, Ala., is that he was not a big man in the Ruthian mold of sluggers. The 6-foot Aaron carried about 180 pounds on his frame, adding just a few along the way. He used powerful wrists and quick hands to lash line drives that just kept carrying.
Aaron was more function than flash, conceding center stage to the theatrical Mays, his breathtaking contemporary. Hank just kept pounding away, and when the numbers stopped counting, he had 2,297 RBIs, more than anybody in history. That record has stood since 1975, when he surpassed Ruth -- and RBIs are truly more reflective of Aaron the performer than home runs, anyway.
Aaron brought it every day, producing for his team, a classic leader by example. He was a graceful, superlative right fielder with a strong, accurate arm. And while he didn't generate Mays' electricity on the basepaths, Aaron could run -- and he rarely ran into an out.
Aaron's judgment in all things rang true, as impeccable as his style. Hank was cool jazz to Willie's hard rock.
Alomar, 47 today, was the great one who got away in San Diego. On Nov. 5, 1990, the Padres and Blue Jays executed one of the biggest, most fascinating swaps in Major League history. Moving to Toronto with Alomar, a gifted young middle infielder, was Joe Carter. San Diego bound were Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff.
Insiders shook their heads in wonder and speculated on how the deal would impact both teams. Would there be a clear-cut winner, or would this be one of those deals that benefited both sides?
It didn't take long for the verdict to be rendered.
By October 1992, it was apparent that the Blue Jays were the decisive winners, having dispatched the Braves to claim the first World Series championship by a Canadian club. Alomar, the American League Championship Series MVP against the A's, was a pivotal figure.
Toronto repeated in 1993 when Carter hammered a three-run homer to left field at SkyDome against the Phillies' Mitch Williams to close the show in Game 6. Alomar batted .480 with 12 hits in the six games.
Few, if any, second basemen in history had Alomar's range and showmanship. He was Mays at his position, a highlight waiting to happen. His 10 Gold Glove Awards are the most ever snagged at second, surpassing Ryne Sandberg by one.
Alomar played 17 seasons and 2,379 games, finishing his career with a .300 batting average and an .818 OPS. He had career highs of 138 runs, 24 homers and 120 RBIs in 1999, his first season with the Indians. He stole 474 bases, with a career high of 55 in '93 for the Blue Jays.
Raising his game under pressure, Robbie was even better in postseason play, hitting .313 with a .829 OPS in 58 games.
Oh, Aaron also loved the big moments. Only three of his 23 seasons ended in postseason play, but he made the most of his 17 games, hitting .362 with six homers and 16 RBIs. At 23, in the 1957 World Series for the triumphant Milwaukee Braves against the Yankees, Aaron hit .393 with three homers and seven RBIs in seven games.
Aaron and Alomar: two masters, sharing a birthdate.