How They Got Hank Aaron's Tribute to Bonds

Hank Aaron's measured video tribute to Barry Bonds on Tuesday night was the final act in a magnificently choreographed production put on by the San Francisco Giants. It was a 51-second piece of stagecraft greeted by 43,000 stunned fans with a standing ovation. And it was a tribute to the adage, "It never hurts to ask."

"I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home-run leader," Aaron said in a surprise taped tribute played on the big video scoreboard at AT&T Park, seconds after Bonds hit No. 756. "It is a great accomplishment, which required skill, longevity and determination." Aaron, whose record of surpassing Babe Ruth stood for 33 years, then offered his "best wishes to Barry and his family," and then rather cryptically added, "My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams." The last comment of course could be read as Aaron's hope that some other ballplayer will come along and one day pass Bonds, whose home-run chase has been tarnished by relentless questions about Bonds's alleged use of performance-enhancing substances. Aaron made clear months ago that he would not be present during Bonds's chase, and Aaron has hardly embraced Bonds as worthy of baseball immortality.

But that didn't stop the Giants from seeking him out. Earlier this summer, the team approached Aaron in Manhattan after a regular meeting of officials from all 30 clubs. (Aaron is a senior executive for the Atlanta Braves.) "We thought this might be Hank's opportunity" to explain his position, says Larry Baer, the Giants chief operating officer, who had the conversation with Aaron. "I didn't think he'd do it. But you never know until you ask."

To Baer's surprise, Aaron replied, "That's something I think I can do." (Through his lawyer, Aaron declined to comment to NEWSWEEK.) Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a close friend of Aaron's, offered his blessings, and in early July, Aaron's carefully written and vetted statement was videotaped in his offices in Atlanta. A single copy of the tape was sent to Baer in San Francisco, who then kept a copy with him as he attended games around the country as Bonds approached No. 756. Only a few Giants officials knew of the tape, as did the commissioner's office and scoreboard-keepers at ballparks where Bonds was playing. Those scoreboard officials had to be briefed ahead of time to be sure the tape was compatible with the local video and audio systems. "I've been carrying around this tape for weeks," says Baer. "Next to the formula for Coca-Cola, it was the most secretive piece of information out of Atlanta."

The countdown to No. 756 began a few weeks ago with Bay Area quarterback legend Joe Montana, who recorded congratulations that were played after home run No. 752. Then came Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Muhammad Ali. Within the Giants clubhouse, as well as across talk radio, the guessing game became who would appear after the record homer. The Giants' well-kept surprise Tuesday night provided the answer.

So far, Aaron's tribute has received none of the criticism that Selig got for his reaction to Bond's 755th home run, which tied Aaron's mark. In attendance in San Diego, Selig stood as Bonds rounded the bases to both boos and cheers from the crowd. Selig did neither, instead just keeping his hands in his pocket. Despite Aaron's ambivalence over Bonds, his videotape tribute so far has proven to be a big hit.