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Hank Aaron, model of baseball consistency, made showing up for work a heroic gesture – The Globe and Mail

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Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron eyes the flight of the ball after hitting his 715th career homer in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta on April 8, 1974.

The Associated Press

In the first of what would become a volume’s worth of hagiographical profiles written about him in Sports Illustrated, the scene is set with Hank Aaron arriving at spring training. It was 1956. Mr. Aaron was 22.

Mr. Aaron sauntered – the magazine’s word, not mine – up to the plate. He’d borrowed a bat from a teammate. He took no practice cuts. He stepped in and knocked the first three pitches out of the park.

Then he turned to no one in particular and said, “Ol’ Hank is ready.”

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No ballplayer in history was more ready for his moment than Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron. He didn’t just singlehandedly pulp the record books. He wasn’t just the best right-handed hitter in baseball history.

What made Mr. Aaron special was that he did those things while a good chunk of the paying public rooted against him, many in the ugliest terms imaginable. He turned the simple act of showing up for work each day into a heroic gesture.

Mr. Aaron’s family announced on Friday that he’d died. No cause of death was released. He was 86.

Just two weeks ago, reporters were on hand as he got the coronavirus vaccine. It was Mr. Aaron’s hope that seeing him get the shot would encourage other Black Americans to do likewise.

“I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” Mr. Aaron told the Associated Press. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”

For the majority of his major-league career, the most remarkable thing about Mr. Aaron was how a player this good could be so unremarkable.

He wasn’t a preener or a showboat. He wasn’t a big, imposing man, or especially fast. When people talked about his superpower, it was his wrists. He had unusually large wrists, allowing him to throw the bat forward like a spinning airplane propeller.

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Like many others in his generation, Mr. Aaron came up poor in the Deep South. He taught himself to hit cross-handed – left hand over right. Because he couldn’t afford a bat or a ball, he honed his ability hitting bottle caps with whittled-down sticks.

Mr. Aaron began his pro career as a teenager in the Negro Leagues, five years after Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s colour barrier.

He would later recall a team meal at a diner in Washington. After they’d finished, the waitstaff took their plates into the back and shattered them.

Atlanta Braves employees place flowers next to a portrait of Mr. Aaron outside Truist Park, in Atlanta on Jan. 22, 2021.

John Bazemore/The Associated Press

“If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them,” Mr. Aaron said.

After a year, he signed with the Milwaukee (later Atlanta) Braves.

Mr. Aaron was not a name-up-in-neon performer. He didn’t put up circus numbers. His calling card was consistency. He had no good years or bad years. He had Hank Aaron-type years, every year.

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How consistent was he? Mr. Aaron got most-valuable-player votes in 19 consecutive seasons.

How underrated was he? Despite setting the all-time career marks in runs batted in, extra-base hits and total bases, he was only named MVP once.

Because the Braves weren’t nearly as great as he was, Mr. Aaron didn’t bob to the surface of the American imagination until he was 37 years old. That’s when he began closing in on Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record.

Mr. Aaron hit his 600th homer in April, 1971. He wouldn’t pass the Babe’s mark – 714 – for nearly three seasons.

During that time, Mr. Aaron became the most famous, the most discussed and the most resented athlete in America.

The racial abuse he faced was medieval. He had to hire an assistant to sort his correspondence – a few fan notes and a great mountain of hate mail.

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The bile of his often anonymous persecutors was so overflowing, they started sending death threats to his assistant as well, because she was Jewish.

Some of the threats were so detailed the FBI advised Mr. Aaron to hire a bodyguard. For security reasons, he couldn’t stay in the same hotels as his teammates. He spent some nights bunking alone in empty ballparks. His children required their own protective details.

Mr. Aaron never showed much interest in Mr. Ruth’s record while he was reeling it in, but he refused to be cowed for going to work every night.

“It wasn’t just playing against Babe Ruth,” teammate Dusty Baker said later. “He was playing against parts of America.”

He hit his 713th homer on the second-to-last day of the 1973 season. That extended the chase another six excruciating months. During that time, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote his obituary, just in case.

Mr. Aaron broke the record on April 8, 1974 – the fourth game of the season. He drove the second pitch of an at-bat just over the left-field fence into the bullpen.

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The man who surrendered the hit, Los Angeles Dodgers starter Al Downing, had a long and laurelled career. But in that moment, Mr. Downing realized he’d become the answer to an obscure piece of bar trivia.

“If you don’t want to give up home runs,” Mr. Downing shrugged. “Don’t pitch.”

Most baseball fans can recall from memory Mr. Aaron’s loping run around the bases. His parents met him at the plate. Only once he’d laid his eyes on them did he seem excited.

Les Motes and his two-year-old daughter Mahalia leave flowers near the spot where a ball hit for a home run by Mr. Aaron, clearing the wall to break Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974.

John Bazemore/The Associated Press

Interviewed a short while later, Mr. Aaron appeared to take little joy in his achievement. The best he could come up with was, “Thank God, it’s over.”

Mr. Aaron played two more years, but his career effectively ended that night. He’d dragged baseball – some of it unwillingly – from one era into the next.

In retirement, Mr. Aaron became one of the game’s wise men. A consensus became to form around him – that he was the professional’s idea of how a professional ballplayer ought to comport himself.

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He worked for years in the front office of the Atlanta Braves. He lent his name to charitable causes, especially those involving children. He owned an eponymous string of car dealerships.

Eventually, Barry Bonds – aided by more than bottle-cap practice – overtook Mr. Aaron’s career home-run mark of 755. This was in the teeth of the steroid era. Everyone knew what was going on, but no one could figure out what to do about it.

Mr. Aaron wasn’t there the night Mr. Bonds broke his record, but he did pre-tape a video tribute.

Mr. Aaron – a man who’d built his legend on the simple rule of showing up and doing a day’s work for a day’s pay – never bad-mouthed Mr. Bonds. He also never made much of a secret of what he thought of his approach to the game.

Long after he’d finished playing, Mr. Aaron kept the hate mail he’d received during the pursuit of Mr. Ruth’s mark. He would show it to startled friends, and occasionally sit with it alone in his attic.

“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in this country,” Mr. Aaron told an interviewer in 2014. “The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, the quiet, unassuming slugger who broke Babe Ruth’s supposedly unbreakable record for most home runs in a career and battled racism in the process, died on Friday at age 86. Reuters

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Raptors-Bulls game postponed due to Health and Safety Protocols – TSN

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The Toronto Raptors’ issues with the coronavirus have worsened, prompting the NBA to call off their game scheduled for Sunday night against the Chicago Bulls.

The league said the Raptors are dealing with positive test results, without disclosing how many, and that combined with ongoing contact tracing issues meant they would not have the league-required eight players available to play.

Toronto played Friday without head coach Nick Nurse, several other assistants and staffers and starting forward Pascal Siakam because of virus-related issues. Assistant coach Sergio Scariolo coached the team to a win over Houston and was in line to coach again Sunday.

All NBA players and coaches are tested daily. The Raptors used 12 players on Friday and had 14 listed as available to play that night. For Sunday’s game, Siakam was the only player who had been listed on Saturday’s injury report as out because of health and safety protocols — which indicates that results that came back on Saturday either showed more problems, or the contact tracing investigations showed that players had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and may have to quarantine.

The Raptors-Bulls game is the 30th to be postponed so far this season because of COVID-19 testing or contact tracing.

Chicago had travelled to Tampa on Saturday for the game and after the postponement was announced changed its travel plans to fly back home Sunday afternoon. The Bulls are scheduled to play Monday at home against Denver.

Toronto’s next game, for now anyway, is scheduled to be Tuesday against Detroit.

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Raptors' COVID-19 issues worsen, forcing postponement of Sunday game against Bulls – CBC.ca

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The NBA called off the Toronto Raptors game against visiting Chicago on Sunday night in Tampa due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The league said the Raptors are dealing with positive test results, and combined with contact tracing issues, wouldn’t have the league-required eight players available for the game.

Toronto was missing head coach Nick Nurse, five members of his staff and star forward Pascal Siakam for Friday’s 122-111 victory over Houston.

The Raptors-Bulls game is the 30th to be postponed so far this season because of COVID-19 testing or contact tracing but the first time Toronto has had to reschedule. Three NBA teams haven’t had a game postponed.

Toronto used 12 players on Friday and had 14 listed as available to play. For Sunday’s game, Siakam was the only player who had been listed on Saturday’s injury report as out because of health and safety protocols, which indicates results returned Saturday either showed more problems, or the contact tracing investigations showed players had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and may have to quarantine.

The names of players or staff members affected were not revealed.

WATCH | Lowry leads Nurse, Siakam-less Raps past Rockets:

Toronto defeats Houston 122-111, Nick Nurse and 5 other members of the coaching staff along with Pascal Siakam were not at the game because of health and safety protocols. 1:23

Players and staff are tested twice daily.

The Raptors announced Nurse and most of his staff would miss Friday’s game a few hours before tip-off.

At the time, Toronto general manager Bobby Webster said it wasn’t clear Siakam’s situation was linked to the coaches.

“The NBA is being extremely careful here,” Webster said. “It’s early in what’s going on here, so I think we’re all being conscientious and not taking any risks…. We’ll see what tomorrow brings us.”

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Vivek Jacob discusses Fred VanVleet’s all-star snub:

Vivek Jacob is joined by Raptors reporter William Lou, to discuss Fred VanVleet not being selected to the 2021 All-Star Game and the Raptors getting back to the .500 mark after a slow 2-8 start to the season. 4:40

The Raptors’ staff was already shorthanded, given Chris Finch left the team earlier this week to become head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Adrian Griffin, Jama Mahlalela and Jon Goodwillie make up the remainder of Nurse’s coaching staff.

The Raptors are scheduled to host Detroit on Tuesday at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., before wrapping up its first-half schedule on Thursday in Boston. They are playing home games in Florida due to Canada’s border regulations around COVID-19, and health and safety measures in Toronto.

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Player grades: No joy in Mudville as Edmonton Oilers whitewashed 4-0 by Toronto – Edmonton Journal

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Maple Leafs 4, Oilers 0

Objects in first place may be further than they appear.

When Edmonton Oilers took to the ice on Saturday night for the opening game of a three-game set against Toronto, they had designs on overtaking the Maple Leafs’ four-point lead in the standings in the days to come. But the first move in that journey was a giant step backwards, as the homestanding Oilers were dominated 4-0 by a Toronto club missing its marquee player and its #1 goaltender. Playing without NHL goal scoring leader Auston Matthews, the rest of the Leafs checked like demons, giving Edmonton’s star players little room to weave their magic. They also took taking advantage of some wide open spaces at the other end of the ice and a couple of holes in a shaky Mike Smith.

In a game that featured just one powerplay for the two teams combined (and quickly resulted in the game winning goal for the visitors), the Oilers weren’t good enough at even strength. While they did generate a significant plurality in shot attempts (58-39), many of them were from the outside, and some of their best looks missed the target. Actual shots on goal were 30-29 Edmonton, but that included 14 shots by Oilers defencemen vs. just 6 by their counterparts in white and blue.  By the Cult of Hockey‘s count of Grade A scoring chances, the visitors held a 10-8 advantage (running count).

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Perhaps the shift that exemplified this game was when Dave Tippett sent out his “In Case Of Emergency, Break Glass” Line of McDavid, Draisaitl and Yamamoto for a late second period push that saw the Oilers threesome pinned below their own hashmarks for the entire shift by the Pierre Engvall trio. You know it’s not your night when…

Player grades

#4 Kris Russell, 4. Accomplished something no other player on either team was able to do when he took a penalty 14 minutes into the first period, the game still scoreless. 24 seconds later he took the “skate of shame” back to the bench and Toronto had the lead for good. Otherwise a quiet, solid game.

#6 Adam Larsson, 5. His night was epitomized by one play where he twice swung and missed at a slow pass across the slot, then deflected the subsequent shot on his own net.

#13 Jesse Puljujarvi, 5. One of the few Oilers who created some traffic in the low slot. 5 shot attempts, but just 1 on net when he was set up by Draisaitl.

#15 Josh Archibald, 5. Played with edge all night, landing a season-high 10 hits in the process. Was among the culprits on the Toronto powerplay goal. first losing a puck battle in the corner, then getting pushed by Joe Thornton into his own crease where he got in Smith’s way. He of all people was left to defend a wide-open 2-on-1 and did cut out Jason Spezza’s passing option; even as the Leafs veteran was able to convert all on his own with a nifty move it wasn’t on Archibald.

#16 Jujhar Khaira, 6. His line did its job, sawing off in 11 minutes and change. Played a solid 2-way game, landing 5 hits in the process. 1 decent shot from the edge of the crease, and a team best 63% on the dot (5/8).

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#21 Dominik Kahun, 4. Oilers controlled territorial play during his 14 minutes but created precious little of actual danger. 0 shots, and 0 involvement in Grade A scoring chances.

#22 Tyson Barrie, 3. Lost a battle on Toronto’s second goal, then had a bad read on the third when he jumped on the ice on a line change but with his partner already trapped up-ice on the rush. He didn’t recognize the danger of an imminent counter attack and got caught in no man’s land.

#25 Darnell Nurse, 3. Very active in the offensive end with 13 shot attempts, 7 of them on goal, both of which led the team by a mile. But most of those shots were from outside, and were in need of a deflection which never seemed to happen. Had a tough night in his own end, as he was on the ice for all 4 Toronto goals and was among the defensive culprits on 3 of them. Twice he dropped to a knee trying to stop Mitch Marner, and both times the shifty Leaf held the puck and beat him to the outside, once to set up a goal, the other time to score himself. Lost a battle in the corner on the game’s final tally.

#29 Leon Draisaitl, 4. Is reportedly banged up and it showed at times. Was repeatedly double-teamed by Leafs defenders along the wall and lost the majority of those battles. Had precious little support from his regular wingers; 2 of the 3 Grade A chances he was involved with came on a shift with Archibald, and the third when he set up Puljujarvi in the slot late in the game after Tippett switched out the lines. 2 giveaways but 3 takeaways. 5/12=42% on the dot in just 17:19 in ice time.  No issues defensively. Absorbed a heavy hit that almost dislodged his helmet, though no call was forthcoming on See No Evil Night at Rogers Place.

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#39 Alex Chiasson, 6. His line with Haas and P.Russell was Oilers’ best, holding a significant edge in play (shot attempts were 14-3 Oilers during his 13 minutes). Twice set up Haas for excellent chances. Played a hard physical game with 4 hits.

#41 Mike Smith, 3. After being at the very top of his game in Thursday’s shutout win in Vancouver, he was off his form on this night. He struggled to track the puck, to stay square to the shooter, and to control or even find rebounds. Got lucky more than once with quick whistles or uncontrolled rebounds that dribbled past the post. First two goals went right through him, while he was completely fooled by Spezza’s fake slapshot and move to the outside. Made a couple of decent stops along the way but rarely looked comfortable doing so. 29 shots, 25 saves, .862 save percentage.

#52 Patrick Russell, 5. 12 solid minutes on an effective depth line. 1 shot, 3 hits, plenty of grinding.

#56 Kailer Yamamoto, 4. Quiet, too quiet. 1 shot on net, a decent chance off a McDavid feed after the lines were shuffled.

#63 Tyler Ennis, 6. Very involved in this game. His 5 shot attempts were the most of any Oilers forward, even as he missed the target with his best opportunity, a clear slap shot from the slot after a Leafs turnover in the early going. Shortly after he was pushed into Toronto netminder Jack Campbell while driving the net, resulting in the one scrum of the game. Had a couple of issues on the defensive side of the puck, including a pair of giveaways.

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#74 Ethan Bear, 4. Still finding his game after a lengthy stint on IR. Among the defensive culprits on the first and last Toronto goals. Not much sign of his trademark outlet passing game.

#82 Caleb Jones, 5. Played 16:27, about 10 minutes of it with Bear before spending time with his early-season partner Larsson down the stretch. Had some issues defensively, but nothing costly. Did fire 3 shots on net, 1 of which produced a dangerous rebound.

#91 Gaetan Haas, 5. His line buzzed around at even strength and created a couple of decent chances. Continued to struggle on the faceoff dot (2/9=22%) to drop to below 40% on the season. One of those lost draws came at the beginning of the Toronto powerplay, leading directly to 24 seconds of pressure ending in a goal.

#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 4. A very quiet night, with 2 harmless shots and 0 contributions to scoring chances. Unlucky on the third Toronto goal when he was driving the middle but McDavid’s pass to Nurse on the far wing caught his skate, creating a turnover and a quick counterattack. Oilers didn’t get enough from their stars in this game.

#97 Connor McDavid, 3. Speaking of which… Edmonton’s captain had a rare off night, beyond a solid 12/20=60% on the dot. Under heavy Leaf checking he generated precious little offensively (just 1 early shot and 1 other contribution to a Grade A chance) while also having a poor time of it at the defensive end. Was burned on all 3 of Toronto’s even-strength goals. Unlucky on the one detailed in the previous comment on RNH, but had no such excuse with weak backchecks on the second and fourth Toronto tallies. Not his night, nor his team’s.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

McCURDY: Oilers first three-game set a showdown vs first-place Leafs

STAPLES: Everybody loves Jesse Puljujarvi, even his coach

STAPLES: Player grades — Brilliant goaltending at both ends as Oilers beat Canucks

McCURDY: Oilers have depth scoring! Oilers have depth scoring!

STAPLES: How to ramp up Yamamoto’s even-strength scoring

LEAVINS: Player grades in comeback win over the Canucks

McCURDY: Caleb Jones finally gets his chance

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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