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Observations From Cooperstown: Aaron, Tickets, and Pena

I guess we can call it one of the benefits of living in Cooperstown. The great Henry Aaron visited the Hall of Fame last weekend to commemorate a new exhibit detailing his life and career in baseball. Aaron becomes just the second man to have an entire room dedicated to him at the Hall, joining Babe Ruth in that exclusive club. When a Milwaukee reporter asked Aaron how he felt about being put on the same level as Ruth, he did not opt for a modest answer based on political correctness. “It means I’m supposed to be on the same platform [as Ruth],” Aaron told the reporter. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

I can’t disagree with Aaron, who overcame a childhood filled with poverty to become one of the game’s legends. While “Hammerin’ Hank” was not the equal of The Babe—no one is—he is unquestionably one of the all-time greats. Still the major league career leader in RBIs and total bases, Aaron was a phenomenal five-tool talent who excelled in every important area. He also deserves extra credit for breaking Ruth’s home run record under the extraordinary duress of racial hatred. Aaron and his family received horrific threats, both in the form of venomous phone calls and vicious hate mail. His sustained excellence in 1973 and 1974, when he was chasing the record and ultimately breaking it, is impressive enough on the surface; it becomes even more pronounced in view of the emotional distress and genuine concerns for his safety.

Unfortunately, Aaron was subjected to racial torment at various times in his career, especially at the beginning and the end. As a minor leaguer developing in the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system, Aaron received an assignment to report to Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League. He and two of his teammates made history, integrating the previously all-white league while dodging the race baiters. “We had three black players on that team,” Aaron told a capacity crowd in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. “I had a very good year. I led the league in everything but hotel accommodations.”

Not only did Aaron and his two black teammates have to endure the embarrassment of staying in separate hotels and eating in different restaurants; they had to endure uncivil behavior at the games. “The problem we had was with spectators. We had a rough time in the South. It got ridiculous. At some ballparks, we could not dress in the clubhouse. If you went 0-for-4, the fans would throw bananas at us.

“We used to talk about how silly people can really be when all we wanted to do was play ball. The thing that made me succeed more was how hateful they were.”

The hatred certainly did not stop Aaron. It did not prevent him from breaking a wide-ranging set of records. Some would say he is the greatest living player. Is he at the top of the list? Maybe, maybe not. Willie Mays has his supporters, as does Barry Bonds. But at the very least, Aaron deserves to be in the argument. For someone who overcame so much racism and poverty, that’s a pretty good legacy to have…

Not only did the Yankees do the right thing in reducing the prices of some of their high-end box seats, they did the smart thing. In this case, let’s refer to the “Empty Seat Syndrome.” Empty seats are the worst thing that can happen to a professional sports team. Empty seats don’t buy concession items. Empty seats don’t buy souvenirs or memorabilia. Empty seats don’t tell their friends about their wonderful experiences at the ballpark. On top of all that, empty seats just look bad, especially when they are located so close to the playing field. When a team is coming off back-to-back seasons of four million fans in paid attendance, there is no excuse for not filling the ballpark—especially a new one that has so many improvements over the old house—on a regular basis. Hopefully, the Yankees have learned their lesson…

As long as Joe Girardi keeps using Jorge Posada as a DH on days when he does not catch, the Yankees will continue to need a third catcher. (Anything would be more useful than a 13th pitcher.) Otherwise, Girardi will find himself strapped in the late innings, unable to pinch-hit or pinch-run for Jose Molina. One potential pickup is Brayan Pena, a switch-hitting catcher who was designated for assignment by the Royals last weekend. The 27-year-old Pena is a rare breed in 2009: a backup catcher who can hit and who carries enough versatility to fill in at third base or first base. As a player who has been DFAed (designated for assignment), Pena will cost almost nothing in a trade, assuming that he is not waived or given his outright release.

Bruce Markusen, who writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com, can be reached via email at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

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