Downing recalls his role in history

Downing recalls his role in history

I found out during the preceding weekend that I would be pitching against the Braves on Monday night for the start of our second series of the season. I found out while we were in San Diego to open the season. But I didn't know for sure what would be going on with Aaron.

Remember, he hit that homer off Jack Billingham on Saturday. But then he thought, "Maybe I ought to break the record at home." His manager, Eddie Mathews, agreed with that. Well, Bowie (Kuhn) hit the sky over that one.

So Aaron did play Sunday in Cincinnati, but remained on hold, so it became inevitable that I would be on the mound when he had his next go at the record.

That didn't bother me. I always had a great deal of respect and admiration for not only Hank but all the guys who came along prior to my arrival -- Willie Mays, Bill White, Frank Robinson. They took all the flack, so by the time I got to the Major Leagues, my road was pretty smooth.

Another reason I particularly admired Henry: I think he never got the acclaim he deserved, for his overall production and contribution to the game of baseball. And he always handled all that with such class.

Even that night, Hank wasn't bothered by anything. He didn't criticize Kuhn for not being there. You never heard him bad-mouth a pitcher he'd just hit a homer off. With him, it was always, "This is how I refine my skills. This is what I do."

When he got to 600 and realized he had a chance at 715, I remember, he decided that he had to change his style a little, to pulling the ball more. When he started doing that, it told me more about Hank not only as an athlete but a man, that he was willing to makes changes and adjustments.

And he didn't go to the media with proclamations of "I'm making changes." He just quietly went about it. So I had always respected the way he carried himself, with a tremendous amount of dignity and respect.

He wasn't a guy to get to the plate and start challenging guys. He wouldn't get all bent out of shape because a pitch happened to be close to him. He'd just get back into the box and clobber the next pitch over the plate. He had a very regal presence when he went to the plate.

One thing I knew is that I had never struck him out. So, in order to get him out, I knew I'd have to get him to hit a pitch out of the strike zone. It would be my will against his patience. If he makes me throw a pitch in the strike zone to his liking, we both knew he would hit it extra hard.

I also knew about Hank being in a mindset to pull the ball, that if he were to hit it hard, most likely it would be between second and third, not to right field. So that made the best place for me to get the ball in the strike zone on the outer half of the plate, and preferably down.

When he hit the home run, what I most remember about it is that it was like he had hit a homer in Spring Training. The same trot. No grandstanding, throwing the bat in the air or anything like that. He ran around the bases like it was just another home run. After all the subsequent years, that's what sticks in my mind.

The Hammer: A Tribute to Hank Aaron

Through the years, Hank has had occasions to discuss the event, and the interviewer would sometimes set up a question by trying to bad-mouth me. Hank would say, "Wait a minute ... Al Downing was a good pitcher." That's Aaron; he would never criticize you. He always gave you that respect.

These days, there is a tendency to always try to vilify somebody. Hank was never about that. He always did the best job allowed by his ability. His attitude was, "I expect to hit because I am a good hitter." Without being negative about the other guy.

After Hank hit the home run, things went a little amok. But I didn't have to block out the distractions, because I'd been forewarned about them. They told me there'd be a short celebration if he hit the home run. Well, it turned into 45 minutes, and half the people walked out of the stadium. I'll never forget that.

A pitcher prides himself in pitching when his turn comes up. That's it. You're not affected by outside events. After Hank hit the home run, and while I'm taking that long break on the bench, my thoughts are, "Well, I had a 3-1 lead and now it's 3-3. I'll have to go back out there and start all over again, from Square 1."

I don't constantly think of that night. But it's always fresh in my mind, whenever anyone brings it up. Like any significant event in someone's life, I can recall everything about it. Because, it is still an important part of my life."

As told to MLB.com reporter Tom Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.