Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Graduation Day

TigerBlog always liked Hank Aaron back when he used to watch him on TV as a kid. Aaron, of course, was a tough guy not to like.

He hit 755 home runs in his 23 Major League seasons, though he never hit more than 47 in any one season. He did surpass 30 home runs 15 times and 40 home runs eight times, and he is one of only four players with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.

One of the other three in that group is Willie Mays (the other two are Eddie Murray and Rafael Palmiero), who was a much more dynamic player than Aaron during the same era. In fact, many consider Mays to be a better all-around player than Aaron, even though Aaron hit a little higher for his career (.305 compared to .302 for Mays) and drove in 400 more runs than Mays.

Part of the reason that Mays is considered to be a better player might be his flair, something that Aaron couldn't match. Or maybe it's because he made his name in New York and then later in San Francisco, whereas Aaron played in Milwaukee and Atlanta.

All Aaron did was consistently drive the ball and bring in runners year after year after year. He's not the greatest player of all-time, but he is in the top, oh, five, probably.

Aaron hit his 715th home run off of Al Dowling, a graduate, by the way, of Trenton High School. It was that home run that moved him past Babe Ruth into first on the all-time list, a chase that famously generated considerable racist ranting about the prospect of a black man's eclipsing the most famous record in American professional sports. Looking back, had it been known who would eventually break Aaron's record and how, there would have been universal desire to see Aaron hit another 50 home runs.

Yesterday, Hank Aaron was given an honorary degree at Princeton's graduation ceremony. From the University's release: As a player entering Major League Baseball soon after its integration in 1954, he confronted racism with quiet dignity, and as an executive he has fought discrimination in hiring practices.

The identity of the honorary degree recipients is a huge secret leading up to graduation. Aaron joins a list of people with athletic backgrounds to be so honored, including the likes of Arthur Ashe and Mia Hamm.

Graduation Day at Princeton always fascinates TigerBlog. Not to be a snob, but it's a unique honor to attend Princeton University - something TB never had a chance of pulling off.

Being a Princeton graduate is no guarantee of limitless post-graduate success, but it does open up all kinds of doors for those who hold such diplomas.

Here at Princeton, it's often said that the college experience should be the "best four years" for the students, and, from our perspective, the athletes.

TB hopes that that isn't the case, that life won't be all downhill from the age of 22 on for those wearing the caps and gowns outside Nassau Hall yesterday.

TB would rather word it that he hopes that the athletes of Princeton reach graduation having had a remarkable time during their four years here. He hopes that they look back at their time here as having provided them with a great foundation to build on in any area of their lives, good or bad. He hopes that they learned to deal with success - and failure - and that they are prepared to handle both in their "adult" lives.

If that sounds a bit too graduation-speechish, that's okay, because TB really believes it.

Maybe they came to Princeton because it afforded them the best opportunity to play Division I athletics, or maybe they came here instead of a scholarship school because of the more-rounded experience. It doesn't matter.

College athletes go through a different kind of four years than non-athletes, and it's not for everyone. The need to balance the workload of school with the workload of athletics is daunting, especially at a place like Princeton.

The 200 or so athletes who reach graduation each year would each tell their own story of how they handled it, how their time here was, how their team dynamic worked out, what their place in that dynamic was.

One of those graduates, Tim Palmer of the men's lacrosse team, stopped by the OAC earlier this morning on his way out, to return a flip cam that TB had given Palmer to do one of the TigerCam videos.

If you've never heard of Palmer, it's because he was a backup player for his entire career. He leaves Princeton having never scored a goal and having appeared in 10 total games.

But make no mistake, his time at Princeton was shaped directly by being part of the lacrosse program, just as much as it would have been had he been a first-team All-America. He practiced; he traveled; he worked out in the off-season. He made friends with his teammates; he came to deal with the fact that he wasn't going to be a starter.

Today, he talked about his future plans, moving on to Chicago to be a trader.

Before he left, he thanked TB for his work with the men's lacrosse team through the years. And then, as he was walking out the door, he said this:

"It was a great four years."

Hopefully it was for all the Princeton athletes, and all the Princeton grads, for that matter.

Congratulations to them all.

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