Monday, April 27, 2009

That Rare Quality of Greatness

A former mayor of Cooperstown tells an anecdote about when his belief was shaken that no one moves to Cooperstown just for baseball. He was talking to a prospective candidate for Village Trustee and the ex-mayor said, "Cooperstownians have no greater love for baseball than the average citizen in any other community." He then stated his aforementioned point.

Turns out that one person, and only one, has ever refuted that. That would be me, during that conversation.

Yes, the only small town I could ever envision myself living in has been, and always will be, Cooperstown. Certainly, since moving here six years ago, the experience of being a full-year resident is different than I thought and, it must be said, much better. There is still the Hall of Fame which looms large every time I pass it, which is every day. It's still a thrill to see.

When I met Tom Seaver at the Hall in October of 2003, that was huge. For me, Tom Terrific is a life changing figure. When he was traded by the Mets to the Reds in June of '77, it made me realize that my love of baseball was rooted in its players, not in its team names and uniforms. The owners control the branding; the players control the game. It altered irrevocably my view of the sport and, to this day, I rarely, if ever, root for a team. I stick to the men on the field as individuals. And I got to tell Seaver that face to face, and he liked what I said. It resulted in the warm connection pictured at left.

So, what could be better than that? How about Hank Aaron, here in the village, to open the Hall's new exhibit on his life, Chasing the Dream. It's wonderful. Unlike Babe Ruth, who gets an over-sized room mirroring the larger than life nature of the man and the myth, the Aaron exhibit is a very human story of a good man achieving extraordinary things. Read Aaron's autobiography, I Had a Hammer. It is one of the best - not just of sports autobiographies, but of the genre.

Aaron in the flesh is humble, self-deprecating ("The home runs were good.") and genuine. But it was impossible to get out of my mind, "Holy crap, that's Hank Aaron." Let's face it, he is in another echelon, which he shares only with Willie Mays, of living legends. Even Seaver would fess up to that, Tom being a long time worshipper of Aaron. From 1974 through the early 1990's, I carried with me from my teenage room to college to my first house, a 4 foot tall cardboard stand up of Aaron watching the flight of an imaginary ball as he finished his swing. I even had a Styrofoam ball labelled "715" which hung from my ceiling by a string, directly in his sight. I still have it, folded up where I can see it. So you know where I stand on Hank Aaron.

A Jackie Robinson model bat was placed on the table. It served as the conduit to a truly magical moment. Hank picked up the bat and gave it a soft, slow swing.

"It's heavy! I don't think Jackie used a bat this heavy." With that, Aaron launched into an explanation of the differences between his thinner handled bat and Jackie's "bottle" bat. He explained how Jackie held the bat with his fingertips, while Hank had it nestled in the crook of his hand (picture at right). The audience of nearly 200 was eerily silent and transfixed as they watched this god of a hitter explain, in his friendly Alabama drawl, one of the tools of his trade.

Had Hank just walked out, waved and turned his heels to go, it would have been enough. This story, among many, was more than any of us bargained for. How often do any of us achieve a level of such heights, even for a fleeting moment? There he was, a man who hit that mark over and over again for 23 seasons, and he was sitting 15 feet from me.

Oh Henry! Thanks for an unforgettable hour.

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