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Last week the Cincinnati Reds took over because their team batting average is close to .290—one has to wonder how high the Reds might hit if they ever got a chance to bat against their own pitching staff. The Los Angeles Dodgers, dealt two cruel blows in recent weeks when First Baseman Wes Parker, enjoying his most productive season, underwent an appendectomy and Don Drysdale again encountered arm problems, have stayed close by holding together old parts and new with sealing wax and string And, as always, the San Francisco Giants are a menacing enigma. Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds have collected over 50 home runs between them, but Willie Mays and Jim Ray Hart have totaled only a dozen, and there are indications that their premier pitcher, Juan Marichal, might be slipping.
So Aaron and the Braves have as justified pennant hopes as anyone. The Braves themselves present a rather remarkable study in contrasts. Phil Niekro, for example, has pitched 17 complete games, but the rest of the staff has managed only 11. Relief Pitcher Cecil Upshaw has rolled up 21 saves, but his earned run average is a bulging 3.78. (By contrast, Minnesota's Ron Perranoski in the American League has 21 saves and an ERA of 1.82.) Atlanta is a team that thrives on the long ball, but at the end of last week the Braves had hit 105 home runs, while their pitchers were giving up 116, hardly a ratio to thrive on.
The controversial trade that brought Orlando Cepeda to the Braves from St. Louis in exchange for Joe Torre has helped. Cepeda has collected 13 game-winning hits for Atlanta (he totaled 12 all last year with the Cardinals). Early in the season Cepeda did an excellent job for the Braves, and his humor helped enliven what was a rather quiet clubhouse. His home run production, however, has been sporadic.
But in the end Atlanta hopes rest with No. 44, that purposeful, deliberate craftsman, Henry Aaron. He is the same Aaron that players have held in awe for years. His quick wrists still snap the bat around with tremendous speed, and he hits what are known in baseball's dugouts as "frozen ropes." He is the most consistent player in a game that demands consistency of its genuine heroes. His record in this respect is remarkable. Only once did he fail to hit .280. That was in 1966, the year the Braves made their move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. His average fell that year to .279, but with 44 home runs and 127 runs batted in nobody could complain that his hitting was inadequate.
Because of his consistency and high level of performance in so many categories, an average season for him produces eye-opening statistics. And when 16 such years are run together, it is no wonder that he is ranked among the greatest.
Early next season Aaron will become the ninth man in history to reach 3,000 hits. "I started to think about reaching 3,000 when I got to 1,000," Aaron says. "It's always been my No. 1 goal. I have always felt that if you get your hits the other things—the home runs and runs batted in—will come along.
"People keep wondering if I will be around long enough to break Babe Ruth's home run record. I really don't know I do know that I will not hang on just for the sake of hanging on—picking up 12 one year and maybe 20 the next and jumping from club to club. I have too much respect for the game of baseball to do that just to chase someone's record.
"When I came into baseball I had a taste for it in my mouth and that has never changed. I still love to play, though it gets harder with the length of the schedule, the traveling and the night games. Often the fans don't realize what a player must go through and how tired he can get. But the fan is the one who pays his money, and he expects to receive the best for it. He goes to games to see people like Sandy Koufax pitch and Maury Wills steal bases; to see Willie Mays make the basket catch and Henry Aaron hit. When I don't hit I feel bad about it, because the fans might feel cheated. It bothers you if you are a professional."
Today Aaron is often hampered by a bad back, but he plays on with valor. He hits his pitch instead of the one the pitcher wants him to swing at, and on defense he is still the sure-handed Aaron that he has always been. It is his attitude to the game he plays and his eventual security, however, that sets him apart from many top figures in sport today.
"Baseball is the only thing I have ever known," Aaron says. "I'm not worried about money or getting a job when I am through. When the time comes, when I feel I should get out, I want to do so with that same fresh taste for baseball that I had when I was a kid. I just want to go out with good health and fond memories."