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756 will break my heart

Sometime in the near future, Barry Bonds will in all likelihood break Hank Aaron's career home run record.

That it will mean Bonds' name appears above Aaron's in the record book is sad enough. That it will be done in an age devoted to the self by the player who has come to represent ego in sports is, unfortunately, all too appropriate.

And what exactly will Bonds give us with 756? We certainly won't get the hype, the hoopla, the we-can-feel-good-about-this feeling that previous record runs have given us. And the truth is, we can't even enjoy some of those anymore.

I got caught up in the Great Home Run Chase, as the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown called the battle between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to break Roger Maris' single-season record. I taped games so I could save the epic moment. I bought St. Louis Dispatches with McGwire and a big 62 on the cover. I went to the Hall of Fame the next year and took pictures of both men's uniforms, their bats and the legendary baseballs.

What a story it would be to tell kids and grandkids one day, I thought. Pull out some old newspapers, some old photos and watch their eyes light up. Then break out the old relic VCR and show it to them.

But steroids and corked bats robbed me of that. Every good moment I felt about that year is gone, stolen just like the TV thieves took from my house when I was in the 10th grade.

The only stories I'll get to tell now are about performance enhancing drugs. And about how one player saw all the attention Sosa and McGwire were getting and said, "I'm better than both of them, even when they're juiced. I'll show 'em." And then he did, all the way to 73 or 74 or whatever phony number sits above McGwire's and Sosa's phony numbers, which sit above Maris and the Babe. (Remember when we just argued over the asterisk?)

And that's what 756 will be, too - a phony number.

Allegations (and a mountain of evidence) of steroid use aside, it hurts me to think that Hank's record will be broken by anyone.

Aaron has been a mythical figure to me all my life, a man among men, with the numbers and the character to back it up. I just don't want his record broken, period.

In 1974, my dad installed some carpet for Aaron. When he got through, he asked Aaron if he could sign an autograph for me. Aaron dug around in a closet that was full of baseballs, pulled out one old practice ball with dirt and grass stains on it, wrote something on it and signed it.

My dad still tells that story, never forgetting to include the details about Hank's wrists and hands and how strong his handshake was. He always closes with "I wish I'd gotten him to date it" since it was the year he broke the record.

Twenty-five years later, I was on my way home from work when I stopped at a Stone Mountain Target. A sign said you could get your picture made with Hank Aaron that afternoon. I went and got in line.

People were talking. Some talked about 715, others about 755 or his arm or how if you took away all his home runs he'd still have 3,000 hits. One guy said it was going to be like meeting Babe Ruth. I said it was going to be better.

A little while later, I met the man my dad had talked about for so many years. I felt the handshake for myself. I swear he could've hit one out that day if he'd wanted.

I told him the story, of course, and of course he didn't remember it, and I didn't expect him to. Others were asking for autographs, and for some reason or another he couldn't sign that day. Some contractual thing.

As I was standing there waiting for my picture to come out and for the attendant to put it in the little cardboard frame, I overheard another guy asking for an autograph on a bat he'd brought. He got the same contractual story, but then, a little quieter, I heard something like this:

"Just come by my office at the stadium. Come early and tell them I told you to come on up. I'll sign whatever."

I can't imagine any circumstance where Bonds would ever tell anyone that, and you can't, either.

I don't plan to collect any newspapers or make any recordings of 756. But that picture and my baseball will stay with me until I'm dead. And then I might be buried with them.

What'd Hank write on that ball, you ask? Nothing profound, just "To Nathan, Best Wishes, Hank Aaron."

But if I could return the favor, my best wish right now is that 756 will never mean anywhere near as much to the world as 755 does.

I know it never will to me.