Theres someone Henry Aaron really needs to meet. Her name is Elizabeth Gillespie. Shes a 1996 graduate of Stanford University and the finest AP reporter in Seattle these days. A devoted wife and new mom, Gillespie is also the proud owner of a pug named Pepper. Its less what Gillespie has done, however, and more how long shes done it that would make Hammerin Hank break out his handsome smile.
My sister, you see, was born on March 29, 1974, in Atlanta, Georgia. The image of our dad leaning over my cot during preschool nap time that afternoon is my earliest memory. (My second earliest is the little red bundle I was shown on the couch of our apartment upon my return home. New babies, I recall thinking, werent as lovely as I1d been promised.) Exactly ten days later, in Atlantas Fulton-County Stadium, Aaron hit an Al Downing pitch over the leftfield wall for his 715th home run. Liz wasnt yet two weeks old, but she was within cheering distance as a 39-year-old record one of the most hallowed in sports was broken.
In a few days, Aarons 33-year-old record is going to pass into the hands of Barry Bonds. And I dont like it one bit. Had you asked me in 1997 when Bonds hit 40 homers, stole 37 bases, won his seventh Gold Glove, and had 374 home runs at age 33 I likely would have told you Bonds was the best baseball player since Willie Mays, and on his way to surpassing the Say Hey Kid as the greatest player of my lifetime. But over the last decade, as the notoriously surly and selfish Bonds has earned baseball immortality for himself, he has also become the scowling, inflated face of the ruinous Steroid Era. And it breaks my heart to see him eclipse a player a man as dignified as Henry Aaron.
Bonds is hardly alone in ruining the home run section of baseballs record book. Mark McGwire has assumed a cowardly silence since his embarrassing testimony before Congress in March 2005. Rafael Palmeiro actually caught with juice in his system may become the first player with 500 home runs (and 3,000 hits, to boot) not to reach the Hall of Fame. And Sammy Sosa? You celebrate his 600th home run, because I wont.
But Bonds should have been above the syringe-laden sirens' calling. A speed-demon and defensive standout before his body ballooned in the late Nineties, Bonds was a first-ballot Hall of Famer ten years ago. But it wasnt enough, not with the likes of Big Mac as ugly a moniker in hindsight as is the nutritional quality of the just-as-famous sandwich and Slammin Sammy filling the highlight shows. Bonds has proven that while chemicals might boost a mediocre player into stardom, they can just as easily take a great player and turn him into, well, a record-shattering, helmet-squeezing monster.
Which brings me back to a person I admire as much as I loathe the new standard being established by Bonds. When Home Run Number 756 lands likely in San Francisco, in front of the Kool-Aid-gulping Giant fans Elizabeth Gillespie will, at that moment, personify Hank Aarons reign as Home Run King. For those of you who havent met Liz, Id like to have you in line right behind Aaron. She lights up a room with her sense of humor, her razor-sharp wit, her devotion to family and friends . . . and her disarming ambivalence about the importance of sports, to say nothing of sports records. You win some, you lose some. Six words that have pleasantly shifted countless conversations over our 33 years as siblings.
Hank Aaron could use those six words in a few days. He (and all of us) could use the perspective on humanity this person born at such an epic milestone in baseball history could provide. Next time youre in the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Aaron, look up my sister. A smile is awaiting you. Probably a hug, as well. The two of you have been together a long time.