16 April 2007

MVN Round Table: Jackie Robinson's #42 and Hank Aaron's 755

Question #1:What’s your take on Major League Baseball’s ceremonies surrounding the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier? Did baseball get it right?

MLB does all sorts of wacky things with uniform promotions. They have All-Star jerseys that the players don’t even wear except for one day during the home run contest, for no better reason than that it gives them something else to sell to their loyal fans. They have “Turn Back the Clock” nights at various stadiums around the country and even (God help us) “Turn Ahead the Clock Night” every once in a while. (Those nights take us to a future in which everyone has really poor eyesight and/or no sense of taste, in case you were wondering.) Anything for a buck, right?

Un-retiring the only universally retired number in sports for one night is kinda cool, but I like Rob Neyer’s idea of rewarding players of certain caliber and talent with an annotated #42 instead. It keeps the memory and the meaning of who Jackie Robinson was and what he embodied alive much better than a plaque on the wall of a stadium, which can be too easily ignored, just like the Japanese advertisements in left field at Yankee Stadium, or the 302 foot marker near the Pesky Pole in Fenway, which probably isn’t more than 295 feet from home plate.

But letting anyone and everyone wear the number (including whole teams) to mark the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s first major-league game just seemed patently silly. If you want to remember Jackie, then remember him. Have a touching video tribute on the JumboTron, or give out some kind of #42 trinket to the fans, or get someone who’s not on the team, someone working for real, racial reconciliation in that city, to come out wearing #42 and throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Better yet, you could have (dare I say it?) an actual moment of actual silence during the actual game, which would be otherwise filled with all kinds of senseless and obnoxious noise between innings. That would have been a better way to remember Jackie, and more important, all those great black players who preceded him, but never got a chance to play on baseball’s biggest stage.

Question #2:Hank Aaron announced publicly that he wouldn’t be celebrating if (and when) Barry Bonds breaks his all-time home run record. Should Aaron and MLB make an effort to honor Bonds’ accomplishments, however tarnished they may be?

Despite his obvious connection with Major League Baseball, Aaron is not employed by or otherwise affiliated with the league, and so lumping the two of them together seems inappropriate. Aaron worked hard to get his record, no doubt, and he has every right to refuse to celebrate if that record’s broken. He doesn’t need the steroid controversy as an excuse. Just general disappointment about getting knocked off the top of the list would suffice.

The Boston.com story doesn’t contain any indication that Aaron is bitter, or jaded, or upset about the allegedly tarnished nature of Bond’s pursuit of his record. Just that he’s old and has better things to do than be there for someone else’s photo-op. Hank, go play golf that weekend, if you want. You earned it.

MLB, however, is a different story entirely. Bud Selig is as connected to MLB as anyone can possibly be, and he was visibly present when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ record in 1998, and then when Bonds broke that in 2001. It seems very likely, in retrospect, that the owners (and Selig himself) knew as much about the prevalence of performance enhancing drugs in MLB locker rooms then as they do now.

The only difference is that now the public knows about it, too, so being there makes Selig look like he’s condoning the use of those substances. But not being there makes him look like a hypocrite, because nobody with half a brain believes that he first learned about the use of steroids in baseball when he bought a copy of Juiced at the Milwaukee Airport for something to read on the plane. Until there’s some kind of real, concrete evidence to suggest that Bonds was or is cheating, Selig ought to be there when it happens.

Read other responses to these questions at the MVN Round Table Discussion blog...

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