Perils of the pursuit


Hank Aaron chased baseball's career home run record in 1973 to a steady soundtrack of racist taunts and catcalls. Some fans booed him from the outfield bleachers. Others challenged him to fights.

And that was just at his home games in Atlanta.

Road games actually were a respite for Aaron, who was mostly cheered and honored away from Georgia as he closed in on Babe Ruth's mark. He played in front of thousands of empty seats and a handful of haters in Atlanta until he got within one homer of the record.

More than 33 years later, Barry Bonds faces his own matrix of pressures, prejudices and criticism as he closes in on Aaron's 755 career homers. The home crowd greets him nightly with unconditional adulation, but he is the most reviled man in whatever city he visits.

The written death threats and insults hurled at Aaron were a result of his pivotal role in the racial politics of the South. Bonds' perils stem from the specter of steroid abuse that has surrounded his last decade in the majors &

as well as Bonds' career-long arrogance and seeming indifference to everyone but himself.

But neither slugger's quest for one of the sports world's most hallowed records has been an entirely pleasant experience.

Aaron acknowledged he barely survived his chase with his sanity and love of baseball intact. He smoked and fretted during semi-sleepless nights in lonely hotels under fake names, and he occasionally couldn't help thinking about everything that could go wrong in a stadium full of people each night &

especially after receiving the death threats that eventually sparked a wellspring of public support for his quest.

If Bonds feels particularly strained by his pursuit, he hasn't let it show. Though he speaks constantly of mental and physical exhaustion, he has been saying much the same things for a decade. His off-field demeanor and game-day approach haven't changed &

still humorless, still aloof and still ruthlessly effective.

"The stuff that Barry has to go through, that wouldn't be fun," Giants teammate Ryan Klesko said. "He knows how to handle it, though. He's a professional, and that's what it comes down to."

The threats on Aaron's life began to arrive in earnest in the early days of the chase, both by mail and phone. As he got closer, they steadily increased in numbers and specificity &

everything from the city and the time purported assassins would hit, right down to what the killer would be wearing.

Security personnel watched over Aaron from the stands, including plainclothes officers who sat in the outfield stands behind Aaron, watching to see whether one of the racist hecklers would take action. FBI agents also shadowed Aaron's daughter, Gaile, who was away at college in Nashville.

During spring training, Bonds also said he has received threats on his life, but hasn't extensively discussed it since then. He has traveled with a security detail for much of the season, and his family also is protected during games.

Though Major League Baseball and the Giants understandably have declined to describe their security precautions around Bonds, extra personnel can be spotted in the stands and off the field wherever San Francisco plays. MLB took similar precautions when other stars &

Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Cal Ripken Jr. &

got close to its biggest records.

But just as Aaron's security learned when two fans got onto the field to congratulate him during his 715th home-run trot, no player is completely safe.

One inning before Bonds hit his 750th career homer at home against Arizona, a 24-year-old fan jumped out of the left-field stands and ran toward Bonds &

he only wanted to shake the slugger's hand before being arrested.

"It is a big concern, but the guy came out, jumped on the field, had his hands up and said, 'I just want to shake your hand,'" Bonds said. "I said, 'Fine, come shake my hand.' ... I said, 'Let's just walk back together, though, so these guys don't throw you on the ground and you'll show them that you mean no harm.'"

Once Aaron's avalanche of hate mail became public, he received a national groundswell of support. Ruth's widow, Claire, gave her public support to Aaron, and the Braves had to hire a secretary, Carla Koplin, to sent out thousands of form letters and photos in response to the positive mail.

That support extended to opposing fields, where fans booed their own pitchers if they walked Hammerin' Hank. They gave standing ovations for most of the shots that pushed him closer to the Babe.

Yet back home in Atlanta, the Braves routinely played before tiny, disinterested crowds during a mediocre season, with fans never warming to the thrill of the chase until its final week. The Braves held Hank Aaron Poster Day earlier in the summer &

and only about 12,000 fans showed up, leaving many of the 20,000 posters unclaimed.

The Giants still draw healthy crowds to their waterfront ballpark, and Bonds is still the star attraction &

but their losing record has taken some luster from the chase. During weeknight games, the disparity between unsold tickets and empty seats is particularly obvious.

Media attention also compounds the troubles. Aaron's pursuit of Ruth was a major national story throughout 1973, occupying a dizzying amount of air time and newspaper column inches &

and Aaron spoke to reporters at length almost every day, increasing the strain.

In that respect, Bonds' aloofness might help: He speaks cordially to the media at the start of every road series, but generally turns the same cold shoulder that has greeted nearly all reporters during his career.

Aaron chased Ruth throughout the 1973 season, but fell one homer short. He finished the chase in the first week of the 1974 campaign, tying Ruth's 714 homers on opening day in Cincinnati before breaking the record in the Braves' home opener.

Another subplot of Aaron's quest seems ready to play out again this summer. While Aaron closed in on the Babe, commissioner Bowie Kuhn's responses to the various twists in the chase were widely scrutinized and criticized &

and Bud Selig already has shown much the same ambivalence, though for different reasons.

Kuhn didn't send a congratulatory telegram after Aaron's 700th homer, stoking Aaron's belief he was taken for granted by baseball's top brass because of his steady excellence.

Kuhn attempted to make up for his gaffe by attending the Braves' games over the final two weeks of the 1973 season and then watching the 714th homer on opening day in 1974, even interrupting the game in Cincinnati for a brief ceremony with Vice President Gerald Ford.

But Kuhn then leaped off the Aaron bandwagon. He was in Cleveland for an Indians booster club meeting when Aaron passed Ruth in Atlanta &

another slight that left Aaron frustrated.

Selig and Aaron are old friends who attended Green Bay Packers games together back when both lived in Milwaukee. Selig has remained conspicuously mum on whether he'll be in attendance for Bonds' record-breaking game, likely because the commissioner knows he'll be asked to assess Bonds' place in history amid the widespread steroid allegations.

"It's not something we're thinking about or talking about," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's going to be a huge moment in baseball. Any time we can promote our sport, we should. I'm not going to think about whether our commissioner is there or not. It's up to him and the schedule."

Selig hasn't even outlined an official response from Major League Baseball, which has conspicuously ignored the whole process.

"I never have thought about it," Bonds said before hitting his 751st homer in Cincinnati.

Another key component of Aaron's chase hasn't yet played out in Bonds' pursuit, but there's a good chance the issue of home-field advantage could come up.

The Braves butted heads with Kuhn in April 1974 when manager Eddie Mathews said Aaron wouldn't play in Atlanta's first three games of the season in Cincinnati. The Braves wanted Aaron to pass the mark in front of his home crowd, which finally seemed intrigued by the idea of seeing the milestone.

Kuhn and other baseball purists were furious, and the commissioner applied public pressure and threats until the Braves relented. Aaron played in the Cincinnati opener and tied the record in his first at-bat, but sat out the next game and &

after another round of recriminations by Kuhn &

played but failed to homer in the third game.

Bonds has hit most of his historic homers in the Giants' pitcher-friendly waterfront ballpark, and the club undoubtedly would prefer to see it happen in San Francisco. Bochy hasn't yet said how he'll approach such a dilemma.

"We've got a lot of work to do as a team, and Barry has a lot of work to do, before that's going to be a problem for us," Bochy said.

No matter how the final days of Bonds' pursuit play out, Bonds will have one thing in common with Aaron: The man he's passing won't be there. The 73-year-old Aaron has no plans to attend the games leading up to Bonds' succession.

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