History of Henry Aaron interwoven into fabric of America through numbers

Gary Coronado
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In the long ago years of my youth, those years when the outcome of sporting events – check that, the mere presence of sporting events – was a powerful motivating force to compel rising in the morning and an even more powerful force to compel staying up at night in front of a television, Henry Aaron was a giant. He was also Hank Aaron, a sportsified name that was a little more accessible and a little less dignified than perhaps the man deserved. A small matter, that, like all things related to Aaron, seems somehow more important now that he is gone. In any case, Aaron was larger than a name, and larger than most things on this earth. We knew a little of that then, and learned more later, as the years passed, and we were – slightly – more willing to bear the full, discomforting weight of his story.

The most famous night of Aaron’s life was April 8, 1974, when in the fourth inning of the fourth game of the new baseball season, Aaron hit his 715th career home run off Al Downing of the Dodgers, breaking Babe Ruth’s 39-year-old career record. I watched it in the second floor bedroom that I shared with my younger brother in our creaky, old house on Adams Street in Whitehall, N.Y., a small upstate village on the edge of the Adirondacks. I was upstairs under the premise of [air quotes] doing homework [end air quotes], but I was a senior in high school, already accepted to college, and killing time. Besides, the “doing homework’’ bit was a ruse that my parents had seen through years earlier. The TV, a 19-inch black-and-white model, lived on a squeaky metal cart which could be wheeled to spots in the room, most often the gap between our two beds. We had a big antenna on the roof that looked like a spider with arthritis.

While Aaron was a presence in my sports fan’s world, I did not, strictly speaking, like him. I was a fan of the New York Mets, who had carried me, in youthful joy, to a World Series victory in 1969 and a National League pennant in ’73. Aaron was an opponent, but he was one of those opponents who was feared more than hated. It surprised me today to re-learn (because I must have known this at some point) that Aaron was a very average-sized man, 6-0 and 180 pounds; generations later we have come to expect sports stars to be giants, often at our ethical peril. Back to the moment: The entire baseball world – and far beyond – was acutely aware of Aaron in the spring of 1974, as he chased Ruth. He hit No. 714 on the first afternoon of the season, a Thursday. I was at the local drug store shopping for record albums when a friend told me that news. Seven one four. In the books.

Henry Aaron was remembered Friday, and should be remembered in perpetuity, for the powerfully American life that he lived – a life full of not just – or even most importantly – towering achievement, but also for remarkable strength and dignity in fighting the systemic racism that was, and remains, endemic to American life, and which loosed itself on Aaron most aggressively as he chased Ruth. In 1994, Aaron told my friend, Bill Rhoden, of The New York Times, “April 8th, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball,” Aaron said. “It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these thing have put a bad taste in my mouth and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”

As a 17-year-old white kid living in a town with zero black residents (I had a Latino classmate transplanted from New York City, to live with a local family; and an exchange student from Argentina. That was our diversity), I was even more disconnected from the reality of Aaron’s life than most. But I was swept up in the early spring of 1974 for one reason (or three). Seven One Four.

Numbers have become an overwhelming presence in sports, through the analytics revolution and through the firehose of the Internet. This is all good. If you are looking for analytics hate, look elsewhere. Our ability to better understand games through more complex and more revealing statistics is sensational, if at times overwhelming. But this is also true: While numbers have become more important, they have also become less powerful. In that spring of 1974, the No. 714 was, for me – and many others – the connective tissue that bound us to Aaron, and would eventually help us understand him.

To children of the ’60s and ’70s, who were immersed in sports, there were precious few statistics that planted flags in our fanaticism. We lived largely – but not entirely – by the eye test. The exceptions stuck. Beamon’s 29-2 ½. Wilt’s 100-point game, which none of us saw, but which lived in the mist. Bannister’s four-minute mile, of which we saw only that one famous, finish-line photo. For me, there was also Pistol Pete averaging more than 44 points per game. But if you cared remotely about baseball, there were numbers you knew: 2,130, 56, 511. You don’t need any more information.

Even more ubiquitous than these was 714, carried across time by the legend of The Babe, in the 1970s still largely untarnished. (Former Sports Illustrated writer Robert Creamer’s book, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, was published in that same year of ’74; it was the first warts-and-all study of The Babe, the first crack in the dam of gilded perfection). Seven fourteen was a note in a bottle, floated across the decades, a number that was easily understood, yet at the same time, held in awe. As Aaron approached it , he become larger (to some, like me), more threatening (to many others; how dare a black man unseat The Babe).

But it’s unarguable that the numbers 714, and then 715, and then 755 (his final total) changed Aaron’s place in our – and his own — history. Had he been less consistent (he never hit 50 home runs in a season, never more than 47; but hit at least 20 a remarkable 20 times), or had he been less durable (from 1955-’70 he never played fewer than 145 games in a season), his story becomes less told. Had he missed just one season in his prime, or parts of several; had he retired early or simply been a less determined man, perhaps he would have finished with 660 home runs (like Willie Mays) or 696 (like Alex Rodriguez). We would never have known how much he endured, simply to change one digit in the record book.

It is, of course, true of all great athletes (and all famous people), that we learn of their struggles – or their indiscretions – because of what they achieve. That is the bargain that humans have with the world around them, ever noisier as time passes. Accomplishment is the cover charge to influence. Henry Aaron would have been a baseball player of great significance had he finished with 713 home runs, or if Ruth had somehow reached 800 or more, and one had not passed the other.

But Ruth stopped at 714, and Aaron kept going and for that reason, we learned of his pain, his dignity, and his power, all in detail that we would never otherwise have known, or embraced. Just three numbers for a man to chase. A ball struck over a fence, a life revealed, a strong man empowered to share his truth.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

Mr. Stats’ Notes: Playoff picture starts to take focus

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This is the time of year that baseball turns from a marathon to a sprint. The Toronto Blue Jays are steps ahead of other teams for a spot in the postseason. Toronto finished one game out of the playoffs a year ago. Will this year be different?

On Sunday, in a game streamed on Peacock beginning at 12 pm eastern, the Blue Jays will play the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 2021, the Jays finished one game behind the Yankees for the Wild Card; and 39 games better than the division rival Orioles. Can Baltimore pass Toronto in the final weeks to nab the third and final Wild Card?

It’s time to sharpen up the predictions to pick out some potential October matchups and storylines.

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Wouldn’t it be something if…the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series?

Well, not the 2022 Pirates.  But several former Pirates.

The 2017 Pirates team had Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon in their starting rotation. By 2018, Cole was gone but Clay Holmes was in the Bucs pen.  If the New York Yankees win the 2022 World Series, it will almost certainly be with heavy lifting being done by Cole, Taillon, and Holmes. Jameson (12-4, 3.97) leads the Yankees in wins. Cole is their ace. Holmes should be the closer.

And if the New York Mets win the World Series this year, they will lean heavily on two other Pirates from those Clint Hurdle-managed teams. The Mets don’t hurdle through the National League without Starling Marte and, to a lesser degree, Trevor Williams.  Marte is slashing .309/.359/.511 with 41 extra-base hits in 93 games since May 1, and for the season his bWAR is 3.7. Williams, meanwhile, has not allowed a run in a career-high 24.0 straight innings. Trevor has a 0.88 WHIP, a .190 opponent’s average and a .483 opponent’s OPS during that span.

Pittsburgh fans can find someone to root for even if the San Diego Padres win the World Series (Joe Musgrove), or the Atlanta Braves (Charlie Morton) repeat.

2022 MLB on Peacock schedule: How to watch, live stream Sunday morning baseball games online

Wouldn’t it be something if…the Cardinals beat the Mets in the postseason (with Adam Wainwright getting the final outs)?

In 2006, the Mets won 97 games. The Cardinals won 83 games. But the two teams met in the NLCS, and in Game 7, the Cards had a 3-1 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. Rookie Adam Wainwright closed it out, slamming the door and eliminating the Mets by striking out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded to end the game.

Wouldn’t it be something if all these years later, the Cardinals once again eliminated the heavily-favored Mets in the deciding game with Wainwright (9-9, 3.09) on the mound!

And if that happened…

Wouldn’t it be something if…the Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series (with Jordan Montgomery eliminating his former team)?

Jordan Montgomery was traded from the Yankees to the Cardinals in exchange for Harrison Bader. Montgomery, in his first five starts for St. Louis, is 4-0, with 1.76 ERA and a WHIP of 0.815. How great would it be for Monty, who started the season as the Yankees’ No. 3 starter, eliminates New York.

Of course, October is a long way away. Perhaps Harrison Bader will run down a long blast by Nolan Arenado or Paul Goldschmidt to save a game for the Yankees.

I know what you’re thinking. Even if the Cardinals make the World Series, the Yankees may fall in the ALCS to the Astros. And if that were the case…

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Wouldn’t it be something if…the Cardinals and Astros meet in the World Series, a rematch of the 2004 NLCS (when St. Louis won) and the 2005 NLCS (when Houston won)?

Albert Pujols was the MVP of the 2004 NLCS versus the Houston Astros. Albert batted .500 (14-28 AB) with 1.000 SLG, 1.563 OPS, and 4 HR in the series! Imagine if he has a surge in the very late stages of his career. In the 2005 series, he hit a ninth-inning blast off Brad Lidge that’s a signature highlight in a career full of them.

I know, the Cardinals are a long shot. The Mets have a much better chance of reaching the World Series. So:

Wouldn’t it be something if…Buck Showalter finally makes the World Series in his 21st year as a Major League manager…and loses the Series when the Yankees bring in a reliever named (check notes…) Zack Britton to slam the door on Buck’s Mets?

Well before Timmy Trumpet, Showalter once had an elite reliever in his stint with the Orioles, Zack Britton. In 2016, Britton saved 47 games in 47 save opportunities. The Orioles won 89 games in 2016, and played in the one-game Wild Card in Toronto. The elimination game was tied 2-2 after five innings. And six innings. And seven innings. And eight innings. And nine innings. And ten innings. Buck kept waiting for his Birds to score a run, to bring in the great Britton to close out the Jays. Trouble is, he never did get Zack into the game, and eventually Ubaldo Jimenez lost the game for Buck in the 11th.

Just a thought. If there’s an opportunity to get Edwin Diaz late in a tie game on the road, do it. If you go down, go down with your best.

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Wouldn’t it be something if Buck Showalter finally makes it to the World Series against the Astros and Dusty Baker? One of them has to win, right? Please tell me someone has to win.

Is it even remotely possible that Dusty’s team blows another series lead? Baker shouldn’t have lost the 2002 World Series to the Angels, or the 2021 World Series to the Braves. He shouldn’t have blown a 2-0 series lead to the Giants in a 2012 best-of-five series. He shouldn’t have blown a three-run lead with five outs to go in Game 7 of a 2003 series to the Marlins. And only Dusty — poor Dusty — can have a lead after four innings of a winner-take-all game, bring in Max Scherzer — and still lose the game and series, as Dusty’s Nats did against the Cubs in 2017.

Wouldn’t it be something if the 2022 World Series were a rematch of the 2017 World Series? Only this time, Clayton Kershaw pitches on a level playing field, if you know what I mean. Man, it would be great to see Clayton start a game in Houston.

Remember what happened when Kershaw started Game 5 of the ’17 series in Houston? Clayton was unhittable in Game 1 of that series at Dodger Stadium; but in Game 5, Kershaw blew a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning, and a 7-4 lead in the bottom of the fifth.

I know Kershaw found redemption in the 2020 World Series in Arlington, Texas against Tampa Bay. But I want more. I want Clayton to shut down Altuve, Bregman, and Gurriel in Houston. In a World Series. Wouldn’t that be something?

And if the Astros defeated the Dodgers, I would feel so glad for Dusty Baker, who would have a World Series championship as a player for the Dodgers (in 1981) and as a manager against the Dodgers (41 years later, in 2022).

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Wouldn’t it be something if someone other than the Astros or Yankees made the World Series?  Wouldn’t it be something if the Mariners defeated the Yankees?

Time for a little history lesson. In 2001, the Mariners had a historic regular season, winning 116 games. But they lost the ALCS to the Yankees in five games. In Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees blowing out Seattle 9-0 and eventually eliminating them 12-3, the Bronx crowd chanted “Over-rated” at the Mariners.

Classy, I know. But wouldn’t it be something if the tides were reversed a generation later, and the heavily-favored Yankees fell in Seattle, with the Pacific Northwest crowd serenading the Yankees with the “over-rated” chant?

Wouldn’t it be something if…Rays manager Kevin Cash refuses to take out a starting pitcher that is on his game?

Wouldn’t it be something if…Bryce Harper finally was part of a winning playoff series? Harper appeared been in four Division Series as a member of the Nationals, and lost all four. 

Wouldn’t it be something if…Francisco Lindor makes the World Series against his former Cleveland team and manager Terry Francona?

As the rock group Green Day sang, “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”

MLB schedule 2022: Every Sunday morning baseball game on Peacock, matchups, what to know

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Sunday baseball is officially coming to Peacock this May! 18 MLB games will be featured on the streaming service starting with the Chicago White Sox vs. Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park on Sunday, May 8 at 11:30 p.m. ET. See below for the full Sunday baseball on Peacock schedule.

Sunday Baseball on Peacock schedule

Date Time Matchup
May 8 11:30 a.m. ET Chicago White Sox at Boston Red Sox
May 15 11:30 a.m. ET San Diego Padres at Atlanta Braves
May 22 11:30 a.m. ET St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates
May 29 11:30 a.m. ET San Francisco Giants at Cincinnati Reds
June 5 11:30 a.m. ET Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees
June 12 11:30 a.m. ET Oakland Athletics at Cleveland Guardians
June 19 Noon ET Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals
June 26 Noon ET New York Mets at Miami Marlins
July 3 Noon ET Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers
July 10 Noon ET Los Angeles Angels at Baltimore Orioles
July 17 Noon ET Kansas City Royals at Toronto Blue Jays
July 24 Noon ET Chicago Cubs at Philadelphia Phillies
July 31 Noon ET Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays
August 7 Noon ET Houston Astros at Cleveland Guardians
August 14 Noon ET San Diego Padres at Washington Nationals
August 21 Noon ET Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Guardians
August 28 Noon ET Los Angeles Dodgers at Miami Marlins
September 4 Noon ET Toronto Blue Jays at Pittsburgh Pirates

How to watch the MLB on Peacock                              

Baseball is back and for the first time ever MLB games are coming to Peacock this May, featuring a total of 18 Sunday match ups. Click here to sign up for Peacock and watch MLB games live on Sunday mornings!

The first MLB game on Peacock will take place on Sunday, May 8 at 11:30 a.m. ET as the Chicago White Sox battle it out with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The game will also be available on the NBC broadcast network.

In addition to MLB games, Peacock will also feature a new MLB hub which will include access to highlight packages and award-winning documentaries from the MLB Film & Video Archive.

Opening Day for the 2022 MLB season takes place on Thursday, April 7 and the league will stick to its original slate of 162 games despite a 99-day-lockout. For more on the 2022 MLB season click here.

See below for additional information on how to watch MLB on Peacock.

How can I watch baseball on Peacock and what devices are compatible?

Peacock is currently available on the Roku platform; Amazon FireTV and Fire tablets; Apple devices including iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV 4K and Apple TV HD; Google platforms and devices including Android™, Android TV™ devices, Chromecast and Chromecast built-in devices;  Microsoft’s Xbox One family of devices, including Xbox One S and Xbox One X; Sony PlayStation4 and PlayStation 4 Pro; Samsung Smart TVs; VIZIO SmartCast™ TVs; LG Smart TVs; Comcast’s entertainment platforms including Xfinity X1, Xfinity Flex, and XClass TV; and Cox’s Contour and Contour Stream Player devices. To learn more about Peacock and how to sign up, visit PeacockTV.com.