- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

ST. LOUIS. — Hank Aaron refused to answer any questions put to him yesterday at Busch Stadium about Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger who is closing in on Aaron’s cherished record of 755 career home runs.

But that didn’t mean the Hall of Famer didn’t have something to say about Bonds.

Sitting on the dais with Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard on one side of him and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on the other — the recipients of the Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the outstanding offensive performer in each league — Aaron didn’t mention Bonds’ name, but he clearly was talking to him.

He turned to Howard, the second-year Philadelphia slugger who hit 58 home runs this year, and said, “This is a tremendous night for me because I think about when I first broke into baseball many, many years ago, and I see how you have decided to carry that torch a little bit further, not only as a ballplayer but as a complete player.

“I think most of us have to realize that we owe much more than just hitting home runs on the field,” Aaron continued, looking at Howard. “We owe a lot to our kids. We owe a lot to our fellow man, and you do have a tremendous duty to continue your job as far as baseball on and off the field.”

Then Aaron turned to Jeter, who batted .343 this season with 214 hits, and said, “Derek Jeter, to me, has demonstrated that he is not only a man that the Yankees can depend on winning a championship year in and year out, but he has carried this a little bit further because he has done so many great things off the field.

“I don’t know, Derek, that I have ever heard a bad thing about you, other than from some pitcher who said you hit a 3-0 pitch out of the ballpark with the bases loaded.”

After that comment drew some laughs, Aaron made a point of continuing his message to Bonds when he said, “Seriously, I think this award means much more than just presenting an award to two great players. I think that you, more than anybody, have realized that what you do on the field means little of nothing to what you do off the field.”

Score that a knockout for Aaron, with Bonds spread out on the canvas.

That is how you have to approach steroids in baseball today — almost in code because no one still wants to really talk about it. When you hear baseball announcers say that a player’s power numbers are down, you can figure out what they are talking about without them spelling it out.

The performance-enhancing controversy still simmers below the surface of nearly every part of the business of baseball. On Tuesday, as baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig and players union boss Don Fehr presided over the celebratory press conference about their unprecedented labor peace and the new five-year agreement with the players, the questions were about why human growth hormone testing wasn’t addressed in the new deal.

And here yesterday, with the greatest home run hitter of all time in the room with two of the game’s brightest stars, reporters peppered Aaron with questions about Bonds — who finished the season with 734 home runs — and whether Aaron would be part of any celebration next season if Bonds breaks the record.

Aaron has made it clear he has no intention of being part of anything to do with it, without particularly mentioning Bonds. He told me this last winter when he was at the Japanese embassy in Washington promoting the World Baseball Classic and has maintained that stance.

Maybe it is because he has a sense that there will be no need to.

This is what Cadillac Bud had to say yesterday: “Hank Aaron and I have had a very special relationship, which goes back to 1958. … Obviously, he broke the most cherished record in American sports, but he’s also, more importantly, he’s one of the nicest human beings that I’ve ever known. He was always that way, and he always will be.

“So this award has great meaning,” Cadillac Bud said. “Hank’s contribution to the sport is legendary. And the thing you always notice about him, he always carries himself with great dignity and class through controversies, through a lot of things.”

Special relationship. Most cherished record in American sports.

George Mitchell’s Bonds probe.

You don’t need the Da Vinci Code to decipher where this is going.

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