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Pirates notebook: Hurdle recalls Aaron's historic homer

| Tuesday, April 8, 2014, 7:30 p.m.
The Braves' Hank Aaron holds the ball he hit for his 715th home run on April 8, 1974, against the Dodgers in Atlanta. The anniversary of his famous homer was celebrated before the Braves' home opener against the Mets on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.

CHICAGO — Pedro Alvarez's prodigious power at the plate has earned him comparisons to Hank Aaron. But the 27-year-old Pirates slugger admits he doesn't know much about the big league's one-time home run king.

“Just what you see on TV about him,” Alvarez said.

Neil Walker was born in 1985, nine years after Aaron retired. Walker learned about Aaron's impact in baseball from Pirates special instructor Bill Virdon, who played from 1955-68.

“Virdon told me stories about all the great players of his era,” Walker said. “Guys like Aaron, (Mickey) Mantle and (Willie) Mays.”

So there was not much sense of historical perspective in the Pirates' clubhouse Tuesday, the 40th anniversary of Aaron's famous home run No. 715. Manager Clint Hurdle, however, has clear memories of the night Aaron passed Babe Ruth in the record book.

On April 8, 1974, the night the Atlanta Braves played host to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hurdle was 16 years old and living in Florida. Although the game was televised throughout the country, Hurdle and his father listened to the Braves' broadcasters on the radio.

Aaron walked in the second inning. In the bottom of the fourth, Aaron launched a 1-0 pitch from Al Downing over the left-field wall.

“We knew it could be the night,” Hurdle said. “Then when he hit the home run ... I remember just the (crowd) noise. You could almost feel it. My dad was trying to explain the significance to me. All I understood was he hit more homers than the Babe. My dad explained it's all about the world, about baseball becoming open to more opportunities for all races, colors and creeds, and this was probably going to happen a lot more often in other sports. I think he was on to something.”

Hurdle has met Aaron several times, including once when he worked with him for a weekend at a baseball camp. Only when Hurdle pressed for details did Aaron talk about the death threats and insults hurled at him as he chased Ruth's record.

“Everybody hears about the challenges Jackie Robinson went through,” Hurdle said. “Hank's never been very vocal about what he had to push through. He's a fantastic guy. A very thoughtful man.”

Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs. That mark stood until eclipsed by Barry Bonds, who hit 762. Because of Bonds' alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs, many fans consider Aaron the true all-time home run leader.

“I talked to some (former players) and the amazing thing for them was Hank didn't hit 450-foot homers,” Hurdle said. “Hank would hit 375, 380, just out of the ballpark. He changed the face of the game.”

Decision time for Mazzaro

Reliever Vin Mazzaro, who was designated for assignment March 29, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Indianapolis. Mazzaro has three days to decide whether to accept the assignment or become a free agent.

The Pirates were unable to find a trade partner for Mazzaro, who last year pitched in 57 games and put up a 1.21 WHIP and got six holds. Hurdle was surprised Mazzaro, who agreed to a $950,000 contract over the winter, was not claimed off waivers.

“He pitched when we were ahead and behind, early and late (in games),” Hurdle said. “It seems like there'd be value for that type of guy. Maybe it's a time of the year when people don't want to take that gamble. He's earned a spot in the major leagues, but he doesn't have one. That's kind of hard to figure out.”

Planet of the aches

Catcher Chris Stewart (knee surgery) continued his rehab assignment with High-A Bradenton. He caught the first five innings, threw out a runner trying to steal second and went 0 for 2. ... Left-hander Jeff Locke (right side strain) is scheduled to make a rehab start Wednesday with Bradenton.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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