Hank Aaron was one of my Childhood Heroes, I thought he'd live forever
It's really hard to describe the feelings and awe that you can have for someone who did nothing more than personify class and showcased their incredible god given abilities for anyone willing to watch.
Hank Aaron passed away today.
How you describe someone who accomplished the things and lived the life that he did? How do you summarize it? What words do you use to express what he meant to you as one of your childhood heroes.
Honest to goodness, I can remember sitting in front of a television in 1974 (I was 9-years old) and watching him hit his 715th home run in front of a sellout crowd at a packed Fulton County stadium. I lived in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida not yet in Atlanta, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
I can still remember the chill bumps and the smile on my face when he majestically launched the baseball just over the left-centerfield fence off Al Downing of the Dodgers. I can picture as I write this, Hank, trotting around the bases, head down but smiling as a couple fans ran on the field to congratulate him and the crazy atmosphere of that night.
As a kid, he just represented what I thought about when I thought baseball as a kid. Even at the age of 9, I was already playing baseball and loved it. I marveled at how Aaron with barely a flick of the wrists, hit the ball out of the park. How easy he made everything he did look. It was almost effortless.
And I read the stories. I was enamored with the legend. I read about how he struggled out of Mobile, Alabama to get anyone to pay attention to his growing baseball skills. The battles with racism while living in the Deep South in an embarrassing era where people of color were treated like second class citizen.
Hank Aaron was no second class citizen. It took a long time for a certain segment of the population to understand that, though over time, they did. Nobody should ever have had to be subjected to things he and other black people went through and in some ways still are going through. Ever....
I'm not going to go into the details of what he had to overcome other than to say a lesser man would not have persevered. A great man, in my mind, is one who doesn't let barriers or obstacles get in the way but just keeps moving forward and be the better man. That's what Hank Aaron did.
I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan like many in the south and in Florida. We didn't have the Marlins or the Rays when I was a kid. The closest team was the Braves and on a clear night, I could get 750 WSB radio at home and yeah, like a lot of people my age, I would occasionally listen to the games.
When I moved to Atlanta in the summer of 1999, I got the chance to actually cover the team as a photojournalist. I'll never forget the very first time I walked into the locker room after a game to get interviews after the game ended. Yes, I stopped, looked around, jaw dropping and not really knowing what to do.
My producer, Robb Tribble punched me in the arm and said "Dude, get over it, we got work to do".
Over time, I would occasionally see Mr. Aaron around the ballpark and at events but it was several years into my Atlanta adventure before I'd get to talk with him as a Sports Photographer and Producer.
Hank was part of the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame's first class of inductees in 2005 and it was there when I got to speak with him for the very first time. Gil Tyree and I were there to interview people on the "Red Carpet" as they came into the building.
He showed up with his wife Billye by his side and when they came walking to us, I damn near had a panic attack. They both smiled, Gil talked to them briefly and then introduced me.
Hank had that "air" about him. You could just feel you were in the presence of a great man, a man who would and could lead and more importantly, he genuinely was happy to meet me. Of course I babbled something about him being one of my heroes as a kid and he smiled.
The four of us talked on camera for a couple of minutes and when we stopped, we talked about life and how things were going for the Aaron's. Both he and his wife could not have come across any more down to earth. We could have talked all night but alas, an event coordinator would come move them on.
There were a few other times our paths would cross after that. Sometimes in Florida at the Braves facility at Disney World and other times in the press box or locker room at Turner Field. I never saw at any time, a room light up more than when he walked in.
It always impressed me how he made time to talk to players and fans alike. The players reacted a lot like I did when first meeting him, but an arm on the shoulder or smile and they would melt. Watching Hank in his 70's and 80's interact with 20 or 25 year old baseball players was amazing. Every single one of them revered the man and to see how big there eyes would get when this great man would come talk to them was something I'll never forget.
Just a couple years ago, ESPN did something that was the most compelling (to me) baseball broadcast I'll ever remember. Hank--in the booth. Just telling stories with the TV crew.
They just let him go. A few questions here or there to move the conversation along, but for nearly an hour, they just talked baseball and life with a game going on behind them.
You know, it's really hard to put into words what it means when one of your heroes in sports and life passes away, yet I'm trying really hard to do it.
It means in a lot of ways I'm getting old too. Which is a little depressing.
But in the last decade or so, I've really come to grips with death and its impact. I try really hard to not dwell on the sadness and loss, I don't think its the right way to pay my respects.
Instead, I focus on the joy and memories. I choose to focus and remember the great things and great adventures of those who've had meaning in my life were able to leave and share. It's the best way, in my mind to honor their memory.
Yes, the baseball world and the world in general has lost one of the greatest people to ever have lived and it really is a loss.
But for so many of us, we got to have Hank Aaron as a part of our lives. And at least for me, I can say I'm in a better place and a much better person for that.