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Wild Card: For the Record
A week ago Tuesday, Barry Bonds hit a solo home run off Tom Glavine for the only Giants' run in a 4-1 loss to the Mets. That home run put him exactly 10 behind Hank Aaron's career home run record of 755. Since then, Bonds has gone just 2 for 16 (a single and a double), but walked nine times. Still, it's all but inevitable that Bonds, who entered the season 21 homers shy of Aaron, will break the record this season.
The thought of the surly, unlikable Bonds, who allegedly used illicit means to reach this position, breaking the record the gentlemanly Aaron claimed in the face of intense racial hatred conjures up a wide variety of unpleasant reactions in nearly every baseball fan. Most fans, consciously or not, still think of Roger Maris' 61 home runs, not Bonds' 73, as the single-season record. I don't have the time, space, or energy to get into the legitimacy of Bonds's accomplishments right now, but it seems as though the closer Bonds comes to Hank's 755, the more the mind races for ways to defang, if not outright undermine his accomplishment.
This got me thinking about the nature of sports records in general. When Maris was bearing down on Babe Ruth's single-season mark of 60 home runs in 1961, there was a similar recoiling by baseball purists who hadn't anticipated Ruth's homer marks ever being broken, and certainly not by a flash-in-the-pan such as Maris. As Maris neared the record, then-Commissioner Ford Frick, who was once Ruth's ghostwriter, famously declared that Maris, who was chasing Ruth in the first year of expansion, for which the season had been extended from 154 games to 162, would have to break Ruth's record by the Yankees' 154th game or have his mark listed separately as the "162-game record" (no, Virginia, there never was an asterisk, now go tell Billy Crystal). Maris had just 58 homers after 154 games and thus his record, which is now considered the "pure" record, was listed separately until Fricks' asterisk was abandoned in 1991.
History (and Crystal) vilified Frick for that decision, but here's the thing: Statistically speaking, Frick was right. Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season and Maris hit 58 in the Yankees' first 154 games, then, given an extra eight games, hit three more. But the record is for the most home runs in a season, and the man who hit the most home runs in a single season as of October 1961 was Maris. It didn't matter that he had more chances than Ruth, the fact was no man had ever hit 61 home runs in a single season of any length. It had never been done. That's what a record is: Something that's never been done. When Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998, that had never been done, and if say you weren't as awed by McGwire's total as he was by himself, you're probably lying.
Bonds broke McGwire's single-season record in 2001 and, though by then the baseball world had become jaded by allegations of steroid use and by the onslaught of 60-plus home run seasons (Bonds' was the fifth in four years and Sammy Sosa would make it six that same year), no one had ever hit 73 home runs in a single baseball season before Bonds did it that year, and no one has done it since. That's the definition of a record.
I remember watching the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul when I was a kid and seeing Ben Johnson run 100 meters in 9.79 seconds. No man had ever been recorded traversing that distance in so short a time. Three days later, it was revealed that Johnson had tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in light of his positive test, which I understood, but he was also stripped of his world record, which I didn't. I understood that he had cheated, but the simple fact was that no man had ever been clocked running 100 meters in less time. How could the Olympic Committee pretend that had never happened? It's one thing to disqualify a boxer from a fight, or a player or team from a game, but a sheer physical accomplishment like that could never be disqualified in my mind.
So sometime in the next month or two, Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career home run, and there will be much pulling of hair, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, and crunching of numbers, but the simple fact will be that no man has ever hit 756 regular season home runs in the major leagues, ever, and that, despite the taint and dishonor that Bonds may bring along with him to that summit, is a record.
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
posted by SI.com | View comments |
an interesting point of view.
just because we are ashamed of a particular period of our history (sporting or otherwise), it is not something to be ignored or dismissed. it must be acknowledged and learnt from. bonds, mcgwire, maris and ruth are all in the discussion of the single season home run record. we are all aware of the caveats that must be considered and there will never be a definitive answer. it simply fuels the debate. life is rarely straightforward.
Bonds is a cheater! Aaron did it with class... However, if A-Rod can stay healthy he will go down as the "HR" king in the years to come. The Giants are absolute losers never winning a World Series in S.F. and Bonds is part of that tradition. All Giants fans ever say is we have had this hall of famer and that hall of famer. But they are missing one thing a World Championship! I am a Bay Area resident and do not like the Giants. GO LA DODGERS!
If A-Rod busts this record eventually anyways, I fail to see how this is really that important.
And if someone put springs in their shoes and captured the long distance jump record you'd say that stood too?! Come on - cheating nullifies the act - period. They had help to accomplish the feat, so how can it stand on it's own?!
Very well written and cogently analyzed, While I am not a Barry Bonds fan i must agree if he breaks the record he deserves the acclaim, what no one seems to be pointing out in this whole steroid witch hunt is that the majority of the abusers have been pitchers hence if they are throwing harder which is evidenced by the fact that there are more pitchers throwing mid 90s and upper 90s today then anytime previously maybe you can then justify the hitters using it to try and catch up to all those enhanced fastballs
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