The three greatest home run hitters have remained the same, in varying order, for 35 years: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. That holy trinity of sluggers, however, will be no more once Barry Bonds belts his third homer of 2004. When Bonds hits number 661 to pass Mays, his godfather, the historic event will engender as much debate as celebration.� Bonds will reach the milestone with his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, under indictment for the illegal distribution of steroids and human growth hormone (HGH). The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that federal agents discovered that Bonds was among the athletes who received those substances from Anderson. Bonds denies using steroids, and his lawyer, Michael Rains, told the Chronicle, "We continue to adamantly deny that Barry was provided, furnished, or supplied with any of those substances at any time by Greg Anderson."
The past decade has been the greatest extended run of slugging the game has witnessed. At the same time it has been the first decade of documented steroid use in baseball. Indeed, Bonds will pass Mays in the first season in which players will be tested for steroids with risk of penalty, a program triggered by anonymous, penalty-free testing last year that revealed enough steroid users to fill approximately three teams. The temptation to connect those dots fuels the growing debate.
Sports columnist Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune, for instance, wrote, "Many of us don't believe in the things we've seen baseball players do over the past 10 years. We know that kind of strength doesn't occur that quickly, that dramatically." He suggested baseball might put "a big, fat asterisk over the whole era. That asterisk would say: Records are in question because of widespread use of anabolic steroids." (To be sure, according to several players and coaches, steroids also have benefited pitchers in muscle recovery and pitch velocity as well as moderate and lesser hitters in increased bat speed.)
In the 70 seasons from 1928 through '97, Roger Maris was the only man to hit 60 or more home runs. His record of 61 homers in 1961—one more than Ruth hit in 1927—stood for 37 years, though for 30 years it carried a mythical asterisk. ( Commissioner Ford Frick designated Maris as the record holder for a 162-game season, preserving Ruth's record for a 154-game schedule. In 1991 commissioner Fay Vincent declared Maris the sole record-holder.) From 1998 through 2001, the 60-homer mark was eclipsed six times, by Mark McGwire (twice), Sammy Sosa (three times) and Bonds (once).
McGwire hit a record 70 home runs in 1998, a year in which he, as well as other ballplayers, took androstenedione, an over-the-counter supplement with metabolic properties that have been described as similar to a steroid's. Andro is not a federally controlled substance and is not banned in baseball. Bonds topped McGwire's mark in 2001 with 73 home runs. Two notable sluggers, former league Most Valuable Players Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, have admitted using steroids. Each made the admission in 2002 after his playing career had ended.
Commissioner Bud Selig has declined to say whether he would consider attaching an asterisk to any records belonging to admitted or proven steroid users (story, page 40). When asked last Saturday by SI if he could foresee any scenario that would move him to designate an official asterisk, including evidence that may be introduced as part of the federal case in San Francisco against Anderson and three others, Selig replied, "That's a hypothetical I'll just have to deal with later."
In addition to home runs and performance-enhancing drugs, there are many other dots to connect in this era of unprecedented offense. The decade also has witnessed an unprecedented boom in the building of ballparks, many with reduced foul territory, closer outfield fences and improved lighting—each a condition that improves hitting. There's also better manufacturing of equipment (making for harder baseballs and bats), a tighter strike zone, four expansion teams and continued advances in nutrition and training.
The postmodern hitting era unofficially began in 1993, the year baseball expanded to Colorado and Florida. The rate of home runs per game jumped 24%, from 1.44 to 1.78. Homers and muscles have kept growing since then. Last year, though some pundits tied the absence of a 50-home-run hitter to the steroid testing, the rate of homers rose again, from 2.09 per game in 2002 to 2.14. Per game in 2003, home runs flew out 49% more often than they did as recently as 1992 and 146% more often than in 1933.
The 50-home-run plateau is becoming as archaic as the four-minute mile. It has been reached as many times (18) since 1993 as it was in the 122 years of major league history before then. In fact, four players who are unlikely to be Hall of Famers ( Brady Anderson, Albert Belle, Luis Gonzalez and Greg Vaughn) have hit 50 since '93; only three players who hit 50 before '93 seem likely to fall short of Cooperstown ( Maris, Cecil Fielder and George Foster).
Further, among the 10 players who account for the 20 greatest single-season slugging percentages, as many have played since 1993 as before. Thirteen of the top 20 career slugging leaders have been active since 1993 (though many will likely go into a decline later in their careers that would lower their percentages). Mays, for instance, who was 11th in career slugging when he retired in 1973, has been pushed to 25th, below such active players as Larry Walker and Brian Giles.