Embracing his legacy
Downing relishes link to Aaron amid Bonds' HR chase
Posted: Thursday August 2, 2007 1:52AM; Updated: Thursday August 2, 2007 10:28AM
LOS ANGELES -- Al Downing hadn't planned on being here. If he had his druthers, he would probably be at home as he was last night watching Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record. Yet here he is, the man who gave up Aaron's historic 715th home run, walking around Dodger Stadium, on the night Bonds could hit No. 755.
"I was asked to come, so I came," said Downing, looking down at his media credential, which says his affiliation tonight is with ESPN. "I'm going to talk to Joe Morgan, but I'm just here as a guest to watch the game like a fan."
Unlike others associated with the soon-to-be record-breaking moment, Downing doesn't seem to mind talking about the infamous pitch that has defined his 17-year career. While Aaron refuses to be in attendance for any of Bonds' games and Bonds refuses to speak to reporters until he ties and breaks the home run record, Downing is more than happy to hold court with anyone who'd like to chat.
"You can't go around and say the only things I want on my resume are the good things," said Downing, who led the American League in strikeouts in 1964 and led the National League in shutouts in 1971. "You can't do that or they'll have to erase all the losses. You don't look at your career and sum it up only with what was good or bad."
Downing, 66, has been following Bonds' pursuit of Aaron's record from afar, usually from the comfort of his home in nearby Valencia, where he still avidly watches baseball after leaving his post as a Dodgers broadcaster two years ago. While others might say (or in Aaron's case, suggest) that Bonds' record will be tainted due to his alleged steroid use, Downing believes that Bonds' record-breaking homer should garner the same admiration that Aaron's did.
"If people don't know anything, they should keep their mouth shut," said Downing, who was a rookie on the Yankees in 1961 when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs. "I don't believe in going around and casting aspersions about a person just because that's what you read in the paper or what you think might be true."
Even with the mounting evidence against Bonds and the fact that Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who just recently joined the Bonds Watch Tour, won't even broach the asterisk topic, Downing believes the wrath that Bonds has attracted is mostly caused by jealousy rather than grand jury testimony.
"Most people cheat in their lives," said Downing, who finished his career with a 123-107 record and a 3.22 ERA. "They think because they cheat, somebody else must be cheating. Barry Bonds was head and shoulders above everyone else at the peak of his career, and everyone else was trying to catch up to him. Now they're finally catching up to him because he's 43 years old; but give him credit for accumulating this success. Give the guy his due. I think some people just don't understand and recognize greatness."
Downing even admits he was one of those people the night of April 8, 1974, when he walked into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He knew of Aaron's imminent record, but the significance of it was lost on the 32-year-old pitcher.
"I didn't even think about it," he said. "I didn't know he'd be in a Hall of Fame back then. We didn't even know what a Hall of Famer was until they retired and looked at their numbers and said, 'I didn't know he was that good.' Hank really didn't get any recognition because he was in Milwaukee, and then he was in Atlanta, and Atlanta was a football town and they weren't playing in the World Series."
When his fastball tailed in toward the middle of the plate and connected with Aaron's bat for an out-of-the-park ride in the fourth inning, Downing began to understand the importance of the moment. If he didn't, he had 11 minutes to soak it in after the homer -- as Aaron was honored on the field.
"The idea of what that home run meant hit me," he said. "No one saw Babe Ruth's home run, not that I knew of. So I knew it was a big moment."
While Downing will certainly be able to sympathize with the pitcher that gives up Bonds' next two home runs, he will not offer them any advice. "You can't tell a guy to do this or that," he said. "I can't give any advice. I'm not a sage."
It's not so much that he doesn't want to talk about his most notorious pitch -- he's proven he's more than happy to chat about it -- but he believes pitchers need to deal with situations in their own way, on and off the mound.
"Every pitcher has their own way," he said. "Every pitching staff I was ever on, you had four pitchers and you'd say 'How are you going to pitch this batter?' and each one of them had a different way of doing it. There is no mold. Every pitcher has his own way and feel for the moment. When you see a pitcher rubbing a baseball on the mound, they're trying to figure out the best grip he can get on the ball, so he can throw the pitch he wants to throw at that moment to get the guy out."
So how would Downing pitch to Bonds if he were facing him on the verge of his record-breaking moment?
"I'm a left-handed pitcher, and I've always felt that all left-handed batters had a blind spot right here (pointing just above the waist); but you had to have a good fastball to get it there because if you don't get it there, it's gone," he said. "But if you could get your fastball there tight, you could get him out. It doesn't always work, but that's what I'd do."
As Downing peeps through a horde of reporters in a packed press box at Dodger Stadium, trying to get a glimpse of Bonds' first at-bat, he smiles as he watches him fly out to right.
"When you walk onto the mound, all you want to do is get the guy out," he said. "You're not thinking about anything else. You're not concerned with the record because that's beyond your control."
But that won't always be the case. At some point, Bonds will presumably hit his 755th and 756th home runs and there will be a pitcher's name attached to each one of those monumental bombs, just like Downing's.
"That's fine," said Downing. "I got up the next day and started running again because I had to prepare for my next start. That's what you have to do. Life goes on. That was what? 1974? 33 years ago. Life goes on. I made it. Hey, how about that? I made it."