In 1999, the Hank Aaron Award was introduced by Major League Baseball to honor the 25th anniversary of its namesake hitting his 715th home run and passing the immortal Babe Ruth for first place on the all-time list.

At the time, it was still kind of hard to imagine anyone ever passing Aaron, who finished with 755 homers. Maybe Ken Griffey Jr. would do it. Maybe Mark McGwire, who had broken the single-season homer record the previous season. Barry Bonds, approaching the 500 home run club, was a remote possibility.

Well, a couple of things have changed in 2007. For one thing, this award, given to an outstanding offensive performer in each league, is presented by Sharp, a new sponsor. And because Bonds surged late in his career and in fact passed Aaron on Aug. 7, the award is now named after someone who is second on the home run list.

But it's still determined by the fans who can vote right now at MLB.com, and it still stands for offensive greatness and the kind of character personified on and off the field by Aaron.

"I am honored to present this award each year," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Hank and I have been friends for nearly 50 years ... and in my opinion, he was the greatest hitter of our generation. When we named this award after Hank -- and, obviously, as I said, there's a longstanding friendship -- it was not only that his career statistics were so magnificent; he broke Babe Ruth's record -- that's the obvious part of it. But I have to say ... for all the years I've watched [Aaron], he's been a magnificent human being off the field. And that's the great part of this honor."

So you are entrusted with a major decision here, and take those words into consideration. It's for outstanding offensive performance in 2007 -- and each October, Aaron and Selig talk more and more during the award ceremony about the value of character and "team player" as additional ingredients beyond mere offensive firepower.

The first phase of fan voting runs now through Sept. 14, and you are asked to choose one player per league from among 30 overall nominees, one per club as chosen by an MLB panel. Then the field will be narrowed down to 10 finalists (it was six last year) in each league based on your balloting, and from Sept. 18-30, you will again be asked to choose one per league at MLB.com. Two winners will be determined, and Aaron and Selig will present them with their awards before Game 4 of the World Series in a National League ballpark to be determined.

American League nominees include: Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels, Shannon Stewart of the Athletics, Alex Rios of the Blue Jays, Carlos Pena of the Devil Rays, Victor Martinez of the Indians, Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners, Brian Roberts of the Orioles, Michael Young of the Rangers, Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox, David DeJesus of the Royals, Magglio Ordonez of the Tigers, Justin Morneau of the Twins, Jim Thome of the White Sox and Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees.

National League candidates include: Carlos Lee of the Astros, Chipper Jones of the Braves, Prince Fielder of the Brewers, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs, Eric Byrnes of the Diamondbacks, Russell Martin of the Dodgers, Bonds of the Giants, Miguel Cabrera of the Marlins, Jose Reyes of the Mets, Dmitri Young of the Natonals, Adrian Gonzalez of the Padres, Ryan Howard of the Phillies, Xavier Nady of the Pirates, Griffey of the Reds and Matt Holliday of the Rockies.

No, the namesake of this award is no longer the home run king, a hallmark title that was the very reason for its inception eight years ago. But ask any of those nominees, and they will tell you just what this award represents. It is obvious that nothing has changed about that; this award just gets bigger each year.

"Hank Aaron was one of the all-time best players," said Cabrera, who again is well on his way to topping 30 homers and 110 RBIs. "He is in the Hall of Fame, and he has more than 750 home runs. That guy is amazing."

"It's a great honor," said Lee, who has had a blockbuster first season in Houston. "Things like that, you have to appreciate that they see the work you do and the time you put into the game. That's nice."

Hank Aaron Award winners
Season
American League
National League
2006 Derek Jeter Ryan Howard
2005 David Ortiz Andruw Jones
2004 Manny Ramirez Barry Bonds
2003 Alex Rodriguez Albert Pujols
2002 Alex Rodriguez Barry Bonds
2001 Alex Rodriguez Barry Bonds
2000 Carlos Delgado Todd Helton
1999 Manny Ramirez Sammy Sosa

"Obviously that means a lot," said Young, the durable cornerstone for the Rangers who is having his usual better-than-.300 season. "To be able to represent this team and all the hard work we've put in is an honor. Obviously as an offense, we have a lot of work to do to be a championship offense. But it is nice to represent this group."

Sharp is also providing a unique incentive for fans through the "Sharp Major League Baseball Sweepstakes" that is currently running at sharpmlb.com. By entering, fans have the chance to win a trip to the 2007 World Series and exclusive on-field access for the Hank Aaron Award ceremony presented by Sharp.

Bonds and A-Rod have each won the Hank Aaron Award three times, more than any other player. It has been a monster season for the latter, who reached the 500 homer club this month, and it's not exactly going out on a limb to say that Rodriguez is probably a favorite for No. 4. But here's where it really gets interesting. What if fans decide that Bonds is also a good choice for his fourth?

Granted, Bonds will have more formidable competition than in any previous year he has appeared on this ballot for the Giants. Fielder has fully blossomed in leading the Brewers to playoff contention, and don't discount Howard, who won this award last year and rebounded from a slow start to a similar form with Philadelphia. There are plenty of top candidates. But let's play what-if. One can only imagine the incredible irony that now exists with fans controlling the new home run king's destiny here.

Fans have already decided this summer that Bonds was worthy of starting in the NL outfield at the All-Star Game. If you decide that he is worthy of this award, then Bonds theoretically would be seated next to Aaron in late October and presented with this award from the man he just passed on the all-time homer list. After Bonds hit No. 756 on Aug. 7, a taped message from Aaron was played on the giant scoreboard at AT&T Park, congratulating him on the milestone. When Aaron talks at this annual award presentation, it is one of the highlights on the annual baseball calendar.

What would The Hammer tell Bonds in person? What would Selig tell Bonds in person at that same head table in the news conference? There is only one way to find out. First, Bonds would have to receive your vote.

Other past recipients of the Hank Aaron Award include Manny Ramirez (twice), David Ortiz, Andruw Jones, Pujols, Todd Helton, Sammy Sosa and Carlos Delgado. Last year's winners, selected during balloting during the regular season's final month on MLB.com, were Howard and Derek Jeter of the Yankees. "It's nice any time you can have your name mentioned with Hank Aaron," Jeter said.

Will Jeter's cohort on the left half of the Yankees infield win his fourth? Will all of those Tigers fans speak up loudly like they did for Ordonez during the voting for All-Star starters here at MLB.com earlier this summer? Will Ichiro finally be recognized for that annual habit of 200-plus hits? Can it be possible that Guerrero -- a dream fantasy regular -- has really never won a Hank Aaron Award?

Will fans go more with power in this Year of the Milestone, or will they acknowledge all facets of the game, including speed, and think about someone like Reyes?

Oh, this one is going to be interesting. Vote as many times as you wish, and then come back on Sept. 18 for that final round of balloting. It is the expected continuation of highly intense MLB.com balloting for important baseball matters, something very evident during the record online balloting for those All-Star starters and 32nd men.

"This award ... was bestowed upon me many years ago, and I want to thank the Commissioner for doing it in perpetuity," Aaron said. "The one thing I want to say about this award is that it goes further than just a ballplayer hitting and batting in runs. You look at this award and you say, 'What does it exemplify?' It exemplifies the fact that each one of these players meant so much to his team, not only hitting the home runs or batting in the runs, but simply manufacturing wins for their respective teams."

Now it is up to you to decide.