Aaron Judge is chasing Roger Maris, not Barry Bonds
The record is not Barry Bonds’s 73, Mark McGwire’s 70, or any of Sammy Sosa’s three 62-plus home run seasons. Their performances are tainted, accomplished before there was drug-testing in Major League Baseball. It doesn’t matter what baseball’s record book says, because the sport is notorious for not punishing cheaters. The sign-stealing Houston Astros, after all, are still recognized as the 2018 World Series champions. Enough said.
Barry Svrluga: The best comp for Aaron Judge’s historic season? Babe Ruth.
Baseball’s see-no-evil approach to steroids damaged the game then and it damages the game now.
People still I suggest that there were no rules against steroids until MLB and the players’ union finally agreed to an experimental drug-testing system in 2002. That’s just not true. Fay Vincent banned steroids in 1991 when he was commissioner. Banning them was one thing; trying to enforce the ban was another. It took MLB and the union more than a decade to agree to drug-testing. It was a little bit like having speed limits on the highway but no police to enforce them.
With no potential consequences, players took performance-enhancing drugs without concern for getting caught. In 2007, the year former senator George Mitchell compiled a report for MLB on steroid use in the game, I was doing a book on Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina. Before the report came out, I asked each of them what percentage of players had been using steroids before drug-testing began. Both estimated about 25 percent, though they also agreed that if you counted those who had at least experimented with steroids, the number was closer to 50 percent. That’s an epidemic.
On the day the Mitchell Report came out that December, I called both pitchers. Again, they said almost the same thing: They were more surprised by the names not on the list than the names that were included.
Mitchell had no subpoena power, and no one could be held in contempt for lying to him. He still came up with evidence that 89 players — including Roger Clemens — had been users of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
No one, except perhaps close friends, family and ardent fans, questions the notion that Bonds, Sosa and McGwire — among many others — used steroids. McGwire has admitted it, and Bonds’s denials sound a little bit like Richard Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.” Sosa, whose English was always excellent, professed at a congressional hearing in 2005 that he didn’t speak enough English to answer questions.
None of the three, thank goodness, is in the baseball Hall of Fame, although their lifetime statistics would normally make them slam-dunk inductees. Bonds hit 762 home runs; Sosa 609 and McGwire 583. Bonds and McGwire were both Gold Glove defenders.
Even with a new generation of Hall of Fame voters more inclined to rely on analytics than morality, none of the three men who supposedly Maris has been voted in passed. Neither, for that matter, has Clemens.
Maris, meantime, hit his 61 homers in 1961 but never as many as 40 in any other season. He was a two-time MVP and played on three World Series champions — two in New York, one in St. Louis. But injuries shortened his career, and he finished with 275 home runs.
His numbers aren’t close to Hall of Fame worthy. But there are those who think Maris deserves consideration, not just for what he did in 1961, but because he had to tolerate former commissioner Ford Frisk’s ridiculous denigration of his record. The asterisk by his name — signifying that his 61 homers came in more games than Ruth played — remained there until he died of cancer at 51 in 1985. It wasn’t until six years later that a committee chaired by Vincent voted to remove the asterisk . Ironically, that was the same year that Vincent banned steroids.
During the summer of 1998, McGwire and Sosa’s chase of Maris’s record became the stuff of romance among almost all those in the media, with iconic Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich a notable exception. In fact, the 2006 book “Game of Shadows” by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada reported that Bonds’s steroid use began after the 1998 season, in part because he was so upset with the notion that McGwire and Sosa might somehow be considered better players than he was.
The only outrage in the Hall of Fame voting? How many people voted for Barry Bonds.
They weren’t. Bonds was a future Hall of Famer before he ever put anything in his body. It’s worth remembering that he stole 514 bases in addition to all his home runs. But he cheated and damaged the game — just as the others did.
It doesn’t matter, even a little bit, that judge says he considers Bonds’s 73 to be the single season record. He was a 9-year-old kid growing up not far from San Francisco when Bonds had his greatest season. It’s understandable that he thinks Bonds has the record. But he’s wrong.
Many in the media keep reporting that Judge is closing in on Maris’s American League home-run record. That’s true. But when he goes past Maris, he will hold the all-time single season record for home runs.
The most thrilling in-person moment I had in sports was watching Ben Johnson explode from the blocks and leave Carl Lewis in the dust in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The chills still go down my arms when I see that race in my mind’s eye.
Except it wasn’t real. Three days after the race, the International Olympic Committee stripped Johnson of his gold medal after he tested positive for steroids. (Note to baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred: The IOC did not say the medal was merely “a piece of metal.”) I was one of many people devastated. We had witnessed history, only we hadn’t. That’s the way a lot of people felt after Bonds, McGwire and Sosa turned out to be users.
So when Judge hits that 62nd homer, we should all not only stand and applaud, but we should get chills.
He will have made history. real history.