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06/17/09 10:00 AM ET
Baker reminisces on former teammate Aaron
'Hammerin' Hank' to be honored with Beacon of Life Award
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
CINCINNATI -- When Hank Aaron made his way to the batter's box to face the Dodgers' Al Downing in the fourth inning of a game on April 8, 1974, two people were positive that history was about to be made. They were Aaron and the batter who was on deck, Braves teammate Dusty Baker. "I remember he told me he was going to get it over with," said Baker, now the Reds manager. Moments later, Aaron sent a Downing pitch into the Atlanta night for a two-run homer and career home run No. 715. Babe Ruth's legendary status as all-time home run king now belonged to Aaron. The closer Aaron had come to approaching Ruth's record, the hotter the intensity and pressure became. Aaron was subjected to racism and death threats and under siege from fans and media thirsty to witness a larger-than-life moment of baseball. "It was a tremendous relief, and a tremendous relief for Hank," Baker said. "It meant a lot to everybody -- for Hank, his family, teammates and the country. To this day, it's one of the top highlights of my career." Aaron went on to hit 755 career home runs and still carries a legacy for the dignity he showed during his pursuit of Ruth under difficult conditions. Besides being one of the greatest to ever step on the field and a Hall of Famer, he is considered one of the true gentlemen to have ever played. On Saturday, Aaron will be honored at the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards luncheon and be recognized as the recipient of the Beacon of Life Award. Commissioner Bud Selig will present the honor and Baker will be in attendance, watching his former teammate like he did in 1974. Baker being on deck behind Aaron has made him a unique footnote in baseball trivia books, but it hardly defines the meaning of the relationship. Aaron, who was 40 years old in 1974 and just 15 1/2 years older than Baker at the time, was the epitome of a role model who took Baker under his wing from the moment he broke into the Majors in 1968. The imprint of the relationship is still evident during Baker's managerial career. Rare is the time a baseball anecdote is told by Baker that doesn't invoke Aaron's name. If someone asks the skipper about his reasoning for a strategy or even resting a star player, Aaron's name often comes up as part of the answer. And to think there was a time that a young Baker didn't even want to play for Atlanta. "The night before the  Draft, I prayed I wouldn't be drafted by the Braves," Baker said. "Being from California, I didn't want go to the South. There was a lot of racial unrest, rioting and different stuff at that time. It was a very tumultuous time for our country. As it turned out, I got drafted by the Braves and I said 'Lord, you didn't hear me.' It turned out to be one of the top things that happened in my life. "I was in that position. I was like Hank's son. To be on deck, to have Hank as my mentor and to be close to Hank now, how many people in history would've or could've been in that situation at 23-24 years old? And batting behind Hank Aaron?"
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.