Baseball's current stars honor living legends
Aaron, Koufax, Bench and Mays represent best of game's history
CINCINNATI -- They stood there together -- Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Bench -- as the cheers and the love washed over them one more time. During moments like this, they're brothers, forever linked in the hearts and minds of the millions of people who love this amazing sport.
There was something appropriate about honoring them before Tuesday's All-Star Game presented by T-Mobile. This game has a new generation of star power on display, a dazzling array of talent.
But before an evening of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and the others, it paused to honor its past. Baseball does this sort of thing better than any other sport, in part, because its generations have always been intertwined. It honors that past, too, by honoring the men on whose shoulders today's game was built.
So there on the field at Great American Ball Park on Tuesday night were the four players voted by fans as the Greatest Living Players: Aaron, Mays, Koufax and Bench.
Wait, you're wondering why Frank Robinson or Bob Gibson wasn't included, aren't you? Or Tom Seaver or George Brett or Pedro Martinez. Yes, that's part of the fun of it. That's why we love it.
In addition, fans of all 30 teams voted for their Franchise Four players, and as part of that promotion, the Reds used the All-Star Game to honor their winners: Pete Rose, Barry Larkin, Joe Morgan and Bench.
These were moments worth chills to baseball fans. First, the Reds were introduced, and after the team introductions, it was time for Aaron, Mays, et al. This year's All-Stars stood and applauded outside the dugouts in appreciation of an amazing collection of talent. Players who've participated in an All-Star Game say they have certain memories etched into their minds.
Perhaps it's meeting a player they've idolized. Perhaps it's doing something special on one of the game's biggest and brightest stages. Or perhaps it's something like this, when baseball legends they've heard of forever stand a few feet away, part of the same evening.
Mays, Aaron, Bench and Koufax gathered in front of the home dugout and walked out together, slowly, methodically with an ovation that was both warm and enthusiastic.
They were introduced one by one as highlights played on the giant video screens. Aaron waved and smiled. Bench did the same thing when it was his turn, pivoting a couple of times to acknowledge the packed ballpark.
Koufax seemed to be fighting back tears as cameras zeroed in on him. Television cameras caught one of his many proteges, Clayton Kershaw, another Dodgers left-hander, smiling broadly and applauding.
Finally, it was the great Mays, taking off his Giants hat and waving it toward the crowd. And then another magic moment, with Koufax throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Bench.
After that, the four of them gathered once more in front of the mound to pose for pictures and to acknowledge the cheers again before making their way off the field.
When the Reds' franchise players were introduced earlier, Bench was the first onto the field, stepping from the American League dugout in a red blazer and waving as he walked to the middle of the diamond. As he stopped near the pitcher's mound, the cheers grew louder, warmer.
It was as if Reds fans were reminding Bench that they hadn't forgotten those 17 seasons when he was one of the cornerstones for clubs that went to the postseason five times and won the World Series in 1975 and '76.
Larkin, another member of the Hall of Fame, followed. He arrived three years after Bench departed and helped the Reds win the 1990 World Series, while personifying class and dignity and grace. Larkin raised both hands as he walked onto the field, smiled and headed toward Bench. They embraced, teammates in the very best sense of the word.
Morgan got the same reception, and, walking with a cane, slowly made his way toward Bench and Larkin. He waved, smiled, soaked in the moment.
And then the cheers for Rose, 74, began before his name was even announced. That the banned former Red, the one who generates so much heat and light, would get the largest cheer was no surprise.
Rose's name might stand for dozens of different things to fans around the country, but in Cincinnati, he's best remembered for 19 seasons in which he played hard and had an impact on winning.
Bench, Morgan, Larkin and Rose represent the best of a great franchise, and their appearance surely prompted waves of memories, of championships and acrobatic plays and all the rest.
Baseball takes up a place in our brains and is there every single day of the year, especially the summer months, when the games serve as the background soundtracks of our lives.
This night was a reminder of all that on so many levels. There were the players of another time, the ones we either idolized or heard about. And then there were the stars of today, writing their own chapters, making their own history.
In that way, the game never changes. It rolls on, but it never forgets its past.