For me, the lasting image of Hank Aaron's 715th career homer on April 8, 1974, is not, strangely enough, the home run itself. It's the two fans who jumped from the stands and patted Aaron on the back while briefly escorting him around the bases.
Presumably, they didn't connect all the dots, didn't know Aaron was petrified, had no idea they would be viewed as two white guys in the South fawning over a black man for breaking one of sports' most sacred records.
Most of us didn't understand the moment, either. We were too young to comprehend what it meant on the outskirts of the civil-rights movement. After all, today's 40-year-olds were working on second grade in 1974. Or maybe we were old enough but too blind.
In some strange, twisted way, we should thank Barry Bonds for giving us a second chance to honor Hammerin' Hank and recognize the treacherous road he took into the history books. Aaron was flooded with death threats and hate mail, including a few letters among the 3,000 he received daily that began with the N-word and grew progressively worse.
This guy wasn't worried about some drug scandal. He feared his next at-bat was his last. The night he broke the record, his daughter watched on television from college under the guard of federal agents amid threats she would be kidnapped. Years later, his mother acknowledged that she wrapped her arms around him at home plate after No. 715 to protect him.
Aaron's former teammates speak about him only in reverent tones, not for the player he was but the person he was. They talk about his graciousness and class, his selflessness, how after Jackie Robinson died he assumed a leadership role and embraced racial issues while others ran from them.
Hammerin' Hank is known for his homers, but he was more proud of his consistency. You know how many 50-homer seasons he had during his 23-year career in the big leagues? None, which was one fewer than Brady Anderson. Aaron hit more than 45 only once, but he hit 34 or more 13 times. He had 3,771 career hits.
In between 1957 and 1973, his first 40-homer season and his last, he batted .300 or better 12 times and .285 or worse only twice. He scored 100 or more runs in 13 straight seasons and received MVP votes for 19 straight. He won three Gold Gloves. He was three RBIs shy of averaging 100 RBIs per season over his career. It's remarkable.
Heck, he'd be in the Hall of Fame without a single homer. He was one of the last great players from the Negro League, one of the few true baseball heroes still alive today.
The more you read and the more you hear, you realize Aaron above all else was genuine, a man who stood up for what was right without boarding his high horse. That alone made him the polar opposite of Bonds, who defiantly stands up for whatever best serves him.
Bonds has been known as an insufferable boor since his early days in Pittsburgh. He's a terrific player, but has he ever been a great teammate?
Circumstantial evidence points to Bonds using performance-enhancing drugs, but there will be no asterisk next to his records. All we know is that Bonds hit 45 homers or more only once in his first 13 seasons, then averaged more than 50 over his next five.
Aaron will not be present when Bonds sets the mark, insisting he didn't want to draw any attention. Interesting, because that's exactly what Aaron has been getting for all the right reasons. People have come to realize that what he accomplished 33 years ago still matters.
Thirty-three years from now, will Bonds' records matter?