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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hank Aaron believes baseball can move on

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - He's no longer the home run king, but he's still the Hammer. Hank Aaron hobbled into Atlanta's spring training camp on Tuesday — he needs knee-replacement surgery — with no opinion on whether Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, but saying he's confident baseball is on the way to recovering from the Steroids Era.

"I think baseball is trying to clean up its act," Aaron said, sitting in the Braves' dugout during batting practice. "It's unfortunate for baseball, but baseball has been through some tough times. It went through the White Sox scandal and survived. It went through a lot of things and survived. It's going to survive this, too."

Like many baseball fans, Aaron tuned in when the Mitchell Report was released, and he was in front of the television set again for Roger Clemens' testimony before Congress last week, when the seven-time Cy Young Award winner denied using human growth hormone as alleged by his former trainer.

"I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad it happened before spring training, before the season started," Aaron said. "We can get it over and done with. You'll see. When the season starts, we'll again be drawing fans. People will come out to watch these kids play."

He declined to say whether he found Clemens' testimony believable, taking the same tact he consistently followed when similar charges were leveled against Barry Bonds, the guy who broke the Hammer's long ball record last season.

"Only Roger can answer to that," Aaron said. "I can't answer to that. I can't say what happened."

He did seem to take a poke at Clemens by bringing up Andy Pettitte, the Rocket's good friend and former teammate. Pettitte has admitted using HGH and claimed under oath that Clemens revealed in private conversations nearly a decade ago that he used it, too.

Reporting to the Yankees camp on Monday, Pettitte apologized for his mistakes and admitted his revelations about Clemens put a strain on their relationship. Aaron praised Pettitte for his honesty and sent a signal that other players should follow suit.

"He told the truth and got it over with," Aaron said. "He didn't lie, and that was it."

If Bonds and Clemens are done playing, they'll be eligible for the Hall of Fame in five years. Before the drug allegations came to light, both were shoe-ins. Now, there are no sure things.

Aaron, who was elected to Cooperstown on a nearly unanimous vote in 1982, wouldn't say if Clemens and Bonds deserved the same honor.

"I have no idea. I don't vote," Aaron said. "If they join me, that's fine. If they don't, well, I don't make the decision on that."

He's not sure if the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs was the sole reason for the dramatic rise in homers during the 1990s. The main problem, Aaron said, was the impression it made on America's youth, reflected in the troubling number of high school athletes now looking for any edge they can get.

"If somebody can tell where it says if you take steroids it will help you hit a baseball, I wish they would tell me," he said. "I don't think it does. I just don't know what it does. The only thing it does is send a bad message to the kids. I don't want your kids or my kids or any other kids out there using steroids."

After the Braves were sold to Liberty Media Group last year, Aaron was supposed to take on a more prominent role beyond his largely ceremonial duties as senior vice president. Indeed, he shed much of his business empire, including a chain of auto dealerships, to spend more time around the team.

Still, Aaron made it clear that he's not a major player in the organization, serving mainly as an adviser to chairman Terry McGuirk.

"I don't want to be classified as doing much of anything," Aaron said with a smile. "I'm just trying to help Terry McGuirk. He's a businessman, and sometimes he asks me questions pertinent to baseball. That's all."

Still, Aaron's presence was enough to cause quite a stir in the Braves' clubhouse. Plenty of players reverently approached the man who hit 755 career homers, just to say hello and shake his hand.

"He's the best," said pitcher John Smoltz, who has played his entire career in Atlanta. "And he's one of ours. That makes it even more special."

Dressed casually in a Cuban-style shirt and khaki pants, Aaron's most pressing priority is taking care of his ailing right knee, which finally succumbed to his long career on the field and active post-retirement lifestyle. He struggles to get around, and his wife is trying to set up a date for knee-replacement surgery.

"It's bone on bone," he said. "I don't know when I'm going to do it, but I am."

Even with the pain in his knee, Aaron relishes being at spring training, especially on a day when he got to watch both Tom Glavine and Tim Hudson take the mound, marveling at them from behind the safety of the batting cage.

"If I had to take batting practice against guys like Hudson and Glavine, I think I would take a rain check. They would have put me in a slump," Aaron quipped. "But baseball is baseball. I enjoy coming out to watch the kids practice. We did basically the same thing, but maybe it was a little bit tougher in my day because we did a little more running."

Any lingering regrets about surrendering his home run record to Bonds? Not in the least.

"I held it long enough," Aaron said. "I had it for 33 years. Hey, why not pass the torch on to someone else? It doesn't bother me."

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