April 13, 2010
Posted: 04:52 PM ET
Baseball is a game of immortals. Untouchables. From 1888's "Casey at the Bat" to Bob Dylan's "Catfish" and Fogerty's "Centerfield", the rhapsodizing of the game and its heroes endures. From "Pride of the Yankees" to "Field of Dreams," Hollywood looks to one sport more than any other for its silver screen magic.
The game and its heroes have an aura of timelessness and invincibility. The best of the best- the true untouchables- are few in number. The list of living legends is even smaller, and the best living player usually comes down to two names- Willie Mays and one Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron.
In this day of inflated statistics (and inflated bodies) in baseball, Aaron still holds the record for career RBI (2,297) and extra base hits. He made the All-Star team every year from 1955 to 1975. He held the career home run record of 755 until Barry Bonds broke that record just three years ago.
Yet even immortals are vulnerable. A few years into retirement, Hammerin' Hank noticed lingering pain in his knee. And it only got worse. "I play golf and hack it like the rest of us. I hit one ball in the sand trap and I had to have someone to almost pull me out of the trap. Its gets to be an embarrassing situation. You know I was an athlete I don’t need all this help."
Then came the real warning signs. "My first sign of trouble when I was trying to drive from my home to the office which is at the ball field which is only ten minutes away. And the more I was putting my foot down on the accelerator my legs would start paining, I was having knee problems. And I said, “whoa this is kind of freakish.” Cause I’ve got to be able to drive." Soon after, he would be diagnosed with a debilitating ailment.
Knee osteoarthritis (OA) can happen to anyone, including Hank Aaron. Until now, Hank's battle with osteoarthritis of the knee has been kept on the sidelines. Yet, in hopes of helping the 10 million Americans with the condition, Hank has teamed up with the drug company Genzyme, and orthopedic surgeon and author Dr. Nick DiNubile to launch "Get Back in the Game." The program encourages the millions of people suffering with OA knee pain to take action now and to talk to their doctor about treatment options.
As proof that he is truly "Back in the Game," Hank will walk in the Arthritis Walk on May 22, 2010 in Atlanta. He is encouraging others to support the fight against arthritis by joining www.teamhank.com. For every person who joins Hank's team, Genyzme will make a donation to the Arthritis Foundation.
Hank Aaron recently spoke with LKL producer Quinn Brown about living with his osteoarthritis, and his thoughts on the baseball season.
LKL: You were always a pretty fit player. How did this start?
Aaron: I’d been playing for 23 years and I’ve never been on the disabled list. I probably just ignored it I didn’t bother with it too much. Of course the more I was having to stop doing some of the things I wanted to do like play golf or tennis or walking and doing things with my grandkids I decided I needed to do something about it. And a friend of mine who was a orthopedic surgeon came up and said, “you know you can try the shot. One shot.” So I said why not try it. I tried everything else. So I tried this one and I have not had any problems since then. Of course I think it lasts six months and its only for the knee (the shot was Synvisc-One, manufactured by Genzyme).
LKL: Do you think baseball had anything to do with this?
Aaron: No question about it. For 23 years running in and out, in and out sliding all the time, constantly sliding. For 23 years you know it certainly had something to do with it.
LKL: Someone with this ailment, what is the first thing they should do?
Aaron: I think they should visit their doctor, an orthopedic surgeon. Someone who knows what their doing and what they’re talking about. Because you know you have to be able to diagnose it and diagnose it right. I think if their knee starts bothering them, I think the thing that most people, especially retired people, I’m not talking about young people, it can happen when youre young, but with retired people- the first thing you do is say 'screw it. it’s finished I’m not going to worry about it. Having an operation? I’m just gonna say I can’t do this.' And that’s not fair to your body, your family, your kids.
LKL: You’re doing a walk in Atlanta to support this cause?
Aaron: Yes, to demonstrate to people that you can get back in the game. We’re gonna get up and walk and try to demonstrate to people if you just get healthy knees and healthy bodies you can get back and do the things you want to do.
LKL: A little baseball talk–This young lad named Jason Heyward (the Atlanta Braves prized rookie outfielder), they’ve compared you and him a little bit. What do you think of that?
Aaron: I think he’s a wonderful athlete. I think he’s gonna be alright. I think theres a difference between him and me you know. He’s much bigger than I ever was. I only weighed 170 pounds. This kid must stand 6’5” and weigh 220. and he’s very powerful. He hits the ball out right, left, center. So he’s much more powerful than I was. I was only just a scrawny kid. But you know he has the ability to be a real good ball player.
LKL: What do you say is the major difference in today’s game as opposed to when you played?
Aaron: Money. (laughs) And I think the pitching is a lot different than it was.
LKL: It's been said that football going to take over baseball as the national pastime. Do you think baseball is in danger of that?
Aaron: I don’t think so. I think football has its customers and baseball has its customers. I think football has come long ways in the last few years because of television and football has been able to explain the game. You know we’ve had some difficulty with strikes and people got a little angry with people. I think last year was a very good year. I think the commissioners office had one of the best seasons they ever had.
LKL: Larry says baseball is human chess. It’s a little harder for people to understand...
Aaron: It is. If you talked to the average person they just don’t understand. Baseball is a game that if you play it you understand it, and if you’ve been around it for a long time people say it’s slow. But actually it's not. If you know what's going on all the time, there’s strategy in everything that you do out there. When you see a player bunt, they’re always supposed to be in motion. It's not slow, its just not as fast as games like football. If you talk about football, I love football. But how many minutes do you get for football. And you talk about basketball. You can go get you a hotdog and come back five minutes and sit there and eat for or five hotdogs and [not miss anything]. I’m not knocking it but that’s the way the game is played.
LKL: Do you have any predictions for this baseball season?
Aaron: The Yankees are going to be tough in the American league. I’d like to see another team go to the World Series cause it means baseball has finally gotten off the thing of saying the high priced teams always advance. The Braves, if we stay healthy, will do well. I think any team can go because if you lose a particular ball player for example if Philidelphia loses Ryan Howard then that ball club is doomed. If we lose someone on our ball club we are doomed. That’s the way it is. Todays sports is not how much you start, it's whether or not you got a good bullpen or whether you got some guys who can come in and play every game. And that’s true in all sports.
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