One of the more disconcerting - and disgusting - developments regarding Barry Bonds' pursuit of major-league baseball's all-time home-run crown is how easy it has become to pillory Henry Aaron.
Bonds, the man most baseball fans see as the embodiment of all that was wrong with the steroid era, is a living, breathing controversy in spikes. With 745 home runs entering last night's play, the San Francisco Giants legend had pulled to within 10 of Aaron's record.
He also had pulled along with him the stench of the steroid era and its resulting debate on issues such as cheating and the degree to which we celebrate, snub or sneer at the new hallmark if Bonds passes Aaron.
The debate over Bonds' deservedness is raging, an inevitable outgrowth of an era that keeps giving major-league baseball a black eye and many fans an anger-filled reticence.
That is not to say that Bonds does not have his supporters as well as his detractors.
But why do those supporters feel a need to prop up their case for Bonds at the expense of Aaron?
Henry Aaron has done nothing wrong. Nothing.
Yet once again, Aaron, this quiet, humble man of few words and even fewer airs, finds himself on the scathing side of a baseball controversy not of his making. And once again, his discomfort emanates from pros and cons tinged with racial overtones.
Talk about being slapped back to an era best left forgotten. To borrow a quote from the great Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again for Aaron as the home-run king once again finds his crown filled with thorns.
Lest we forget, back in 1974 - the year Aaron seized the home-run crown from Babe Ruth - Aaron found his life turned into a living hell simply because he, a black man, had the temerity to pursue Ruth's hallowed mark of 714. Aaron was not only hounded, belittled and insulted. He also was threatened by anonymous white supremacists who thought that to "honor" Ruth, they had to try to scare off Aaron. How? By using the ugliest racist epithets, by resorting to tactics that would have made only the lowest form of vermin proud.
Aaron endured that trial with little or no support from Major League Baseball, which, in the person of then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, treated Aaron's pursuit with icy disdain.
Most of the nation would go years, even decades, before being made aware of just how lonely and, yes, even dangerous a road Aaron walked to pass Ruth's magical milestone.
In retrospect, Aaron's ability to soldier on was nothing short of heroic. He turned in a performance not only nuanced by his plentiful baseball skills but also by his dedication, perseverance, and strength of character.
Apparently, too many of us have forgotten the combination of personal and professional traits that made Aaron the Hall of Fame player and Hall of Fame person he is.
For here we are, in 2007, and Aaron is again being torn at by critics who possess all the subtlety of a pack of pit bulls as he finds himself labeled a coward, an Uncle Tom, a sellout after making a decision not to be present if Bonds breaks his record.
Sadly, astonishingly, what makes this turn in Aaron's story so galling is that this time he is being ravaged by many of his fellow African Americans, some with powerful voices.
The venerable William C. Rhoden, a columnist with the New York Times, lumped baseball, hypocrisy, and commissioner Bud Selig and his reticence, with Aaron and his cold shoulder all in one damning commentary, writing: "In many ways, Selig and Aaron are making the problems worse, making the cloud over baseball thicker."
Rob Parker of the Detroit News and, like Rhoden, one of the preeminent black voices in sports media, was even harsher on Aaron in a recent column, stating flatly: "Hank Aaron is a coward."
That was just the first sentence. Parker went on: "What's Aaron's problem? Well, he needs to take a stand - either denounce Bonds' attempt because he's been implicated in the steroids scandal or embrace Bonds' accomplishment and show up. Playing middle of the road isn't fair - to baseball, its fans or Bonds. Instead, Aaron has chosen the easy way out - saying nothing. That's sad."
In recent conversations with fellow blacks, I've heard yet another theme repeated, one that supports a recent ESPN-ABC poll that finds black America highly suspicious of Bonds-bashing. In these conversations, I've heard one constant: bitterness over Aaron's refusal to embrace Bonds, to come to the defense of a fellow African American.
This, the critics charged - and very sincerely believed - gives aid and comfort to those legions whose dislike of Bonds just has to be steeped in racism.
For why else, this school of thought has it, would Bonds be so hectored by the masses?
Got to be race. Just got to be.
That rationale, of course, stops just short of the point where one could say, What about Aaron - a black man - who is about to lose a record built on talent and his own blood, sweat and tears as opposed to, say, the best efforts of your local neighborhood chemist?
So Aaron twists slowly as Bonds' inexorable drive homes in on him and his record. His silence is being berated more and more. His planned absence is being dissected and rejected cavalierly by those who assume they better understand the predicament Aaron has been swept up in than does he.
No one among the debaters in the barbershops, baseball stands and sports bars can ever truly know the depths of Aaron's angst, anger or, in the least, ambivalence. Nor can any of the columnists and baseball writers and commentators who are turning up the heat on the still-quiet Aaron.
So as Aaron hides away the pain once again, let a chorus rise up and demand that this madness stop. And let it be said here that the easiest way to assure that it stops is to have no less than Barry Bonds demand it. The slugger who professes to love baseball and takes every opportunity to honor Willie Mays, Aaron's fellow great, should acknowledge Aaron's dilemma. And he should demand that the wolf pack that has formed in his defense back away from the Hall of Famer.
Do that, Barry, and even your most ardent critics may take another look at your plight and reluctantly admit that this was one home-run swing that was beyond reproach.