COMMENTARY | The Baltimore Orioles' slugger Chris Davis recently took a verbal bat to the oversized dome of Barry Bonds when he publicly stated his thoughts regarding MLB's single-season home run record. Davis contends that the 61 homers Roger Maris hit should still be the official record. If Davis is right, and the 1961 season is still the pinnacle home run campaign, should the Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron again be considered the reigning home run king?
There is nothing to suggest any of Aaron's 755 homers were tainted, although his era was not exactly squeaky clean either. The use of amphetamines were rampant in the 70s, so it is impossible to know who was given a drug-aided boost from time to time. Still, Aaron's consistent stats should provide a clear indication of his cleanliness. Whereas Bonds' home run totals fall anywhere from 16 to 73, the most "Hamerin' Hank" ever hit in one season was 47, in 1971. Aaron amassed his career numbers by turning in an average season of 37 dingers and 113 RBIs year in and year out.
Aaron does not get nearly enough credit for the type of pressure he was under when attempting to pass Babe Ruth's all-time record of 714. Although Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, Aaron still dealt with racism and death threats as he marched towards dethroning "The Sultan of Swat" in what many still considered a white man's sport.
Aaron has become an ambassador for the game of baseball in a way few other players can claim, and in 1999, MLB honored Aaron by naming an award on his behalf. The Hank Aaron Award is now given out annually to the best hitter in each league as voted on by fans and media members -- ironically enough, Bonds has won the award three times.
It's hard to argue that Aaron should still be the record holder when he himself regards Bonds' as the rightful home run king. Aaron said, "It belongs to Barry. No matter how we look at it, it's his record, and I held it for a long time [33 years]."
Aaron still holds MLB records for RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856). Neither of these marks are in danger of being threatened any time soon.
Bonds accumulated 762 home runs in his career, but, given his ties with performance enhancing drugs, some feel he cooked the books like a crooked Enron accountant. Bonds only hit seven more homers than Aaron, so steroids were certainly the difference in him being able to squeak by the king, right? Well, in actuality, Bonds would probably be someone in the 850-range if not for teams pitching around him for the better part of a decade.
If anyone is still confused who the most feared hitter to ever step into a batter's box was, just head over to the leaderboard for career intentional walks. Bonds ranks No. 1 with 688 free passes, then way far in the distance, Aaron ranks No. 2 with just 293. Teams took the bat out of Bonds' hands 120 more times than Aaron and Albert Pujols combined.
The part of the story that makes me lean towards Bonds as the true home run record-holder is the fact that pitchers simply refused to throw him strikes. He broke this record while only seeing one or two hittable pitches each game. In 2001, Bonds hit a home run every 6 ½ at-bats, but I'd love to see a stat that quantified his home runs per actual number of strikes seen. In 2004 alone, he was walked 232 times, yet he still hit 45 home runs and 101 RBIs in only 373 at-bats. Steroids can help players get big and strong, but they can't hit the ball for them or make them suddenly turn into consistent contact hitters.
In 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put on a drug-infused home run hitting display, the pair had 326 combined strikeouts. When Bonds broke the record, he struck out only 41 times. Bonds does not belong in the same category as the PED users who became all-or-nothing home run hitters carrying paltry .250 career averages.
One reason it is hard to completely discount Bonds is because, despite other sluggers using steroids, no one else became Barry Bonds. If steroids is all it takes, and it just becomes a matter of giving yourself an ejection and then automatically transforming into a baseball-mashing machine, like some home run hitting Popeye after eating a can of spinach, then why did Rafael Palmeiro never hit 73 home runs or bat .370 with an on-base percentage of .609? To simply brush Bonds' accomplishments under the rug and say he's just another steroid user is a little too cut and dry.
And exactly how are we supposed to think about the cornucopia of home runs Bonds hit off juiced pitchers? Do they still count? Everyone wants to think PEDs was simply there to help players swing the bat, but some suggest drug use was even more prevalent among the players giving up those long bombs. The San Francisco Giants' slugger lambasted 449 different pitchers in his career, including homers off suspected PED aficionados Andy Pettitte, Eric Gagne, Kevin Brown and Bartolo Colon, just to name a few from the laundry list of offenders.
Ultimately, the record is what the record is. Unless MLB comes out and actually erases these player's names from the book, 762 is still the high-water mark for home runs, much the same way Pete Rose's 4,256 hits is still the record. Bonds' era of baseball was dirty at every position, but it was far from the only era where players looked for a little extra advantage. For that matter, maybe weight lifting should be considered too much performance enhancing to compare with the likes of Babe Ruth, whose workouts consisted of five reps of lifting hot dogs from his plate to his mouth.
Baseball has become a much harder game for hitters today. As good as Ruth or Mickey Mantle were, they did not have to face guys throwing 95 mph every inning. Pitchers they faced had no pitch counts. How many cheap home runs did these players hit off noodle-armed guys throwing pitch No. 180 of the game? No lefty specialists with blazing gas and a 12-6 curveball were waiting in the wings to specifically face them.
It is impossible to compare players from different eras because they were playing a different game. While Bonds' name is probably not going to be erased from the record books, perhaps baseball needs to devise a new classification for this era. Calling it the "Steroid Era" is too pejorative of a term. A new name, in the vein of how the Dead-ball Era of pre-1920 baseball is defined, could help coin the post-1990 period. Perhaps we can crown Aaron as the home run king of the Live-ball Era while Bonds sits on the throne of the Super Live-Ball Era.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
- Sports & Recreation
- Barry Bonds
- Hank Aaron