The circus is coming, and he knows it.
“I can almost see it,” Hank Aaron says with a chuckle.
The circus is coming, the guy with clown arms leading the parade, accusations and suspicions trailing clumsily behind, and, Lord, does baseball need Hank Aaron.
It needs his dignity in the stands when Barry Bonds swaggers through 755. It needs his integrity beside the plate when Bonds stalks through 756.
Baseball desperately needs the quiet majesty of its career home-run leader to soften the callous chase by the unlikable guy who is within 52 homers of catching him.
Aaron chuckles again. Baseball needs him? How about the time he needed baseball?
Where was baseball three decades ago when he was running this same race, only with twice the curves, chasing Babe Ruth while dodging hate mail and death threats and ignorance?
The aging hero cannot outlive the scars, and he has no interest in reexamining them.
The circus must go on without him.
“I’m not going to go,” he says. “I had to live it for two or three years, and I don’t want to be pushed back into it. I don’t need to be there.”
It’s not about steroids, he said, it’s about something far more lethal.
It’s about memories.
“That’s enough of it,” says Aaron, 70. “I don’t want to rehash it. I don’t want to talk about it no more. It’s about Barry and his family. They deserve the glory.”
He says he’s much happier these days in places like the San Fernando Valley home of producer Mike Tollin, where he visited last week to hand out scholarships for the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation.
The fund was the idea of Tollin and partner Brian Robbins, two of Hollywood’s good sports who produced a 1995 Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicled Aaron’s chase of Ruth.
On Thursday, Aaron arrived in Tollin’s backyard to hand out a couple of dozen scholarships to local kids to help them pursue dreams of everything from art to tap dancing. Later, he attended the premier of the Tollin/Robbins production of another triumphant sports movie, “Coach Carter.”
In between, sitting on a couch in Tollin’s home, his boyish smile belying his gray hair, he did a rare interview in a life now surrounded only by those who know him well enough to require no questions.
“I’m not going back out there,” he says of the Bonds chaos. “I don’t need it. I don’t want it. At my age, my life is with my family, or on the 10th hole somewhere in Florida.”
It isn’t that Aaron dislikes Bonds. Quite the contrary. Bonds actually surprised him during their last meeting, during the World Series.
“My grandson wanted me to get an autograph, but somebody told me, Barry wouldn’t sign any autographs, he was too mean,” Aaron says. “But, hey, he was fine, he even autographed two things for me.”
And it’s not that Aaron thinks Bonds’ record would be tainted if he is found to have used steroids.
“People say he shouldn’t have the record? Hogwash,” Aaron says. “A guy can take steroids, drugs, whatever. He still has to be able to hit that Roger Clemens 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Steroids don’t help you hit that fastball.”
Still, Aaron wonders.
“You fantasize about how many home runs we could hit if we were on drugs,” he says. “Of course, you still had to hit that fastball.”
He also says he is thrilled with the new steroids testing policy, with one caveat.
“Who’s going to do the testing?” he says. “I just hope Donald Fehr is not doing the testing.”
Aaron says he is certain his record is history, and that’s OK.
“The only way Barry doesn’t break the record is if somebody breaks his leg,” he says. “I don’t care if he hits 800 home runs, I’ve got no animosity there.”
Just don’t ask him to show up for the team picture.
Back when Aaron broke Ruth’s record, the commissioner of baseball didn’t even show up for the game.
Some fans were angry. Other players were disrespectful. For years, Aaron kept thousands of pieces of hate mail stored in his attic.
“It’s easier for Barry, it’s a lot easier,” Aaron says. “He doesn’t have to deal with the kind of people I dealt with.”
Later, whether because of the color of his skin or the quiet of his presence, the sports world never quite gave Aaron credit for breaking sports’ most sacred milestone.
“I wouldn’t want anybody to have to do it the way I did it,” Aaron says.
He was never given a baseball job above farm director. Even after Aaron saved baseball in the South, Atlanta’s new field was named after owner Ted Turner.
Aaron spent many years angry, lashing out at baseball’s lack of minority hiring, upset that there never seemed to be a place for him.
“Everyone thought I was bitter; I wasn’t bitter,” Aaron says. “I thought there weren’t enough minorities in baseball and I said it. Most owners were frightened of me. They are frightened of people they can’t control.”
Bud Selig, baseball’s current commissioner, finally opened the door several years ago by creating the “Hank Aaron Award” for baseball’s best hitter.
But by then, it was almost too late.
Aaron has fashioned a life outside baseball, with businesses ranging from automobiles to Krispy Kremes. He attends only a couple of Brave games a year.
Now that baseball finally needs him, well ...
“I’ve never been so happy with my life,” he says. “Ten years ago, everybody said, ‘What’s wrong with Hank?’ But not now.”
A marriage of more than 30 years. Five children. Five grandchildren. And his million-dollar foundation.
When giving out the scholarships last week, he loudly claps and hugs each child.
When one of them hands him a thank-you note -- a long way from the hate mail -- he actually giggles.
“This is more important than home runs,” he says. “I like seeing kids smile.”
He begins signing autographed photos of himself as a player, and Tollin gently interrupts.
“Look at those muscles,” says Tollin.
Because there are none.
How different, seeing Aaron in these photos after sitting with Bonds in a Giant clubhouse.
Bonds is all edges, tight smile, sharp movements, a bundle of bulges that seem perpetually on the verge of rage.
Aaron is all smoothness, wiry arms, sharp features, the only bloating in a cigar that dangles from his youthful fingers.
“Drugs?” Aaron asks, laughing. “We couldn’t afford no drugs.”
Baseball needs his laugh. It needs his perspective. It needs his forgiveness. It needs Hank Aaron. It has 52 home runs to find him.
(Begin Text of Infobox)
MILESTONE HOME RUNS
*--* HANK AARON No. Date, Opp. Pitcher Age 1 April 23, 1954 at St. Vic Raschi 20 years, 67 days Louis 100 Aug. 15, 1957 at Don Gross 23 years, 181 days Cincinnati 200 July 30, 1960 at St. Ron Kline 26 years, 166 days Louis 300 April 19, 1963 at New Roger Craig 29 years, 63 days York 400 April 20, 1966 at Bo Belinsky 32 years, 62 days Philadelphia 500 July 14, 1968 vs. San Mike McCormick 34 years, 150 days Francisco 600 April 27, 1971 vs. Gaylord Perry 37 years, 71 days San Francisco 700 July 21, 1973 vs. Ken Brett 39 years, 156 days Philadelphia 755 July 20, 1976 vs. Dick Drago 42 years, 155 days Angels
*--* BARRY BONDS No. Date, Opp. Pitcher Age 1 June 4, 1986 at Craig McMurtry 21 years, 315 days Atlanta 100 July 12, 1990 vs. Andy Benes 25 years, 353 days San Diego 200 July 8, 1993 at Jose DeLeon 28 years, 349 days Philadelphia 300 April 30, 1996 vs. John Burkett 31 years, 277 days Florida 400 Aug. 23, 1998 at Kirt Ojala 34 years, 30 days Florida 500 April 18, 2001 vs. Terry Adams 36 years, 268 days Dodgers 600 Aug. 9, 2002 vs. Kip Wells 38 years, 17 days Pittsburgh 700 Sept. 17, 2004 vs. Jake Peavy 40 years, 55 days San Diego 703 Sept. 26, 2004 vs. Jeff Weaver 40 years, 64 days Dodgers