Baseball legend Hank Aaron, the true homerun king and arguably one of the five best players in baseball history, was a huge Ravens fan.
The beloved Aaron, who overcame the discrimination that hindered Black athletes of his generation, died Friday at the age of 86.
This humble legend first was devoted to the Cleveland Browns, and switched his allegiance to the Ravens when Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore in 1996.
Let me explain.
An assistant came to my office with the Browns and said: "Hank Aaron is on the phone for you."
I wondered which one of my friends who loved baseball was calling. My response was sarcastic:
"Yeah Hank, what can I do for you?"
"Mr. Byrne, this is Hank Aaron."
I recognized his soft, mature voice.
"I am so sorry, Mr. Aaron," I said. "I thought you were one of my friends pulling a joke on me. And, please, my name is Kevin."
"I'm Hank. And, I would love to come to a Browns' game and sit in the 'Dawg Pound.'"
The bleachers at old Cleveland Stadium had become the "Dawg Pound" in the mid to late 1980's. It was a raucous, fun place to watch a game and Aaron wanted to join the crowd. Heck, we had judges and doctors asking to buy season tickets in the Pound.
"Mr. Aaron, we'd be proud to have you come to a Browns game. We could find a place with some privacy. In fact, I'm sure Art Modell would love to have you sit with him in his suite."
"Please, call me Hank. … I appreciate that. No, I'd really like to sit in the 'Dawg Pound.'"
And the homerun king came to Cleveland for a game. Rather than send him a ticket, I volunteered to meet him when he arrived at the stadium. (A chance to meet Hank Aaron, are you kidding me?)
When Aaron arrived, I showed up with two security persons who could help him enjoy his "Dawg Pound" experience. Aaron didn't need the help.
Aaron was in disguise. A beard and mustache. A Browns ball cap with hair sticking out the sides.
Those who sat around him that day never realized that they were sitting next to the great Hank Aaron.
The following season, Mr. Aaron came back again. Same disguise. This time I asked him: "Why the Browns? Why are you such a big fan?"
He explained that he became a fan of the Browns "back in the days of Marion Motley." Aaron, a native of Mobile, Alabama, explained: "You'll find a lot of southern Blacks are Browns fans. You were the first NFL team to have prominent Black players. We didn't see that on other teams. You were on TV and that's who we watched. That's why I root for the Browns."
In that chaotic first season in Baltimore in 1996, an assistant announced: "Hank Aaron is on the phone."
I knew that wasn't a joke.
My first thought was that Mr. Aaron was going to tell me he couldn't root for us anymore. Another celebrity, Jerry "The King" Lawler – a famous pro wrestler and announcer – had recently called me after the move of the Browns was announced and told me: "Are you going with Modell to Baltimore?" When I said "likely," he said: "Well, I can't be your friend anymore and tell Modell I hate him." Instead, Hammerin' Hank explained that he had read everything he could about the Browns' move to Baltimore and that he agreed with what Art did.
That brought tears to my eyes.
"We deal with the government here (in Atlanta). We know the difficulties. Please let Mr. Modell know that I think he got the short end of the stick in Cleveland. I'm a Ravens fan now."
RAY LEWIS ACCUSATIONS
Fast forward to late January, early February of 2000. Ray Lewis was accused on national television by the Atlanta Mayor and Fulton County prosecutor of "taking a device and killing two people on the streets of Buckhead (Georgia)."
Mr. Aaron called to see if he could help in anyway. He was a top executive with the Atlanta Braves. He was familiar with issues of police accusations against minorities.
At the time, Lewis had heard from many of the prominent liberal lawyers in the country. Well-known defenders like Johnny Cochran were reaching out to Ray's family to represent our star player.
Art Modell asked Aaron: "If you had a Braves player in trouble, who would you hire?" The baseball executive didn't hesitate: "Ed Garland."
Art gave that suggestion to Ray.
The rest is history. Mr. Garland's defense was so clear and precise that within a few days of the start of the trial, the prosecutor, who was being embarrassed on national TV, offered to drop the charges. The rest is history.
(Just an aside. Some reporters continue to espouse that Ray "pleaded" to a lesser offense. Here's what happened: the prosecutor asked to meet with Garland on a Sunday morning, explaining that he was planning to drop the charges. A day later, the prosecutor asked if Ray would take the stand and tell what he knew of that awful night. Lewis agreed. The prosecutor then explained that Ray would have to admit that he "was not forthcoming with the police on his first interrogation." Ray agreed, at the advice of Mr. Garland, even when he was told that he was admitting to a misdemeanor. There was no plea bargaining.)
AARON WAS THERE FOR SUPER BOWL XXXV
Later that year, when the Ravens advanced to Super Bowl XXXV, Mr. Aaron called and asked if he could attend the game. When we offered the opportunity to sit in the Owner's Box, he declined. He ended up sitting in the stands with Brian Billick's and my family. He started that weekend with a visit to our Friday practice, where he talked to the team and told them that "I know you well. You are ready to be champions."
Near the end of that spectacular Ravens victory, I reached out to the baseball Hall of Famer and asked if he wanted to join the post-game celebration with us.
He humbly declined. "This is your celebration, not mine." I suggested that Ray would really like to see him and threw out our general manager's name, Ozzie Newsome. "Oz would want you down here." (Mr. Aaron had great respect for his fellow Alabaman.)
The homerun king met me at the bottom of his aisle. I was on the field. There was a multi-tiered railing and then a five-foot drop to the ground. "I'll help you down." (What an idiot I am.)
Aaron struggled a little to get over the railing and I suggested he step on my shoulder and I would cup my hands and he could step into that. It wasn't graceful. I heard his "oomph" as his foot slipped from my hand and he landed on his feet – hard – behind our bench.
Sorry, Mr. Aaron.
We were damn proud to have you as a Ravens fan. May you Rest In Peace.