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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Hank Aaron

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

The list of SI's Sportsmen of the Year is very nearly a complete roll call of the transcendent athletes of the last half century. Just about all the legends are there: Ali and Gretzky, Abdul-Jabbar and Montana, Wooden and Jordan.

It's an exclusive club. At first glance, everyone you'd think should be in is present.

Except for one glaring absence. Well, glaring probably isn't the right word; in his half century on the public stage, very little about Hank Aaron has been glaring. His omission from the Sportsman list is both a slight and a testament to the understated grace with which the Hammer has lived his life, a dignity that has often been too easy to overlook. We were reminded of this in 2007 as Barry Bonds, the anti-Aaron, chased the all-time home run mark. Statistics say that Bonds has surpassed Aaron, 762 home runs to 755.

But in the hearts of fans, Aaron is still the home run king. More than three decades after he assumed the mantle, Aaron finally got his full due this year, and he's my choice for Sportsman of the Year.

During his playing days Aaron's best chance at being named Sportsman was in 1974, the year he hit his 715th home run and passed Babe Ruth. The magazine instead went with Muhammad Ali, who had taken down Joe Frazier and George Foreman and regained the heavyweight title that had been stripped from him seven years earlier.

Ali was deserving of the honor, but the choice was telling: Even at his finest hour, Aaron was easily overlooked, perhaps taken for granted. His career was a monument built on consistency, humility and authenticity. For Aaron, the formula carried the blessing of greatness and the curse of being underappreciated in his time.

But as Bonds' home run total grew this year, so too did Aaron's stature; as the gap between their home run totals shrank, the gulf between their legacies widened. Aaron, natural-born slugger, civil rights soldier and baseball ambassador, cemented his role as the legitimate king. Bonds, shrouded in steroid suspicion and disgraced by a federal indictment, is the usurper who unfairly gained the crown.

As Bonds drew closer to his mark, baseball fans waited -- even hoped -- for Aaron to excoriate Bonds, to brand him as a cheater and declare him unworthy of the record. But as he had as a player, when he pursued Ruth through a storm of racism and hatred, Aaron kept a dignified silence. He distanced himself from Bonds' chase.

When Bonds finally hit No. 756 into the San Francisco night, Aaron was asleep at his Atlanta home, letting a measured, videotaped congratulatory message speak to Bonds for him and all of baseball: "My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams."

Aaron's handling of Bonds' tainted pursuit only highlighted the contrasts between the two sluggers, reminding fans that while Bonds might out-homer Aaron, he'd never be Aaron's equal. It was a lesson in graceful aging, a primer for all athletes on how to preserve their honor even as their accomplishments are eclipsed. (Are you listening, 1972 Dolphins?)

When I see the footage of Aaron's 715th home run, I'm still struck by the way he rounded the bases that night in Atlanta: quickly, purposefully, without a hint of self-congratulation, so focused and self-assured that he barely broke stride even when two fans hopped out of the stands to accost him as he headed for third base.

Bonds caught Aaron too, but in our hearts, the Hammer hasn't stopped running, and 755 is still greater than 762.

Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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