The biggest buzzkill in sports is knowledge, you know. The more we learn about concussions, the more football becomes a disgusting exercise in systemic brain damage, and the more we understand about college athletics' overwhelming greed, the more time we spent delving into ethical quandaries and moral imperatives, and the more we hone in on performance-enhancing-drug use in baseball, the more a black-and-white outcome – what happened vs. what didn't – grays with caveats.
Know what? It's awesome being ignorant. Most of us were dumb as a bag of hammers in 1998, and it was the best. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa pumped themselves full of steroids and were about to obliterate arguably the most hallowed record in American sports. Nothing in football comes close. Maybe Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in basketball, though that was just one game. For nearly 40 years, Roger Maris had held the single-season record with 61 home runs, and here were two guys who genuinely seemed to like each other smiling and smashing and making dog-days baseball appointment viewing. Our collective obliviousness allowed it to be that.
The backlash against the summer of '98 – casting it as this dark period for baseball – is simply reflexive, a defense mechanism because the truth reminded us of our stupidity. Instead of embracing those great moments – McGwire's 62nd and 70th, with Sosa on his heels the whole time – vanity won out. It usually does.
Baseball spends so much time craning its neck backward, honoring its past to the point of worship, that history becomes its be-all, end-all. The prism through which so many view PEDs is that of its effect on the past. Maris' record is gone, first to McGwire, then to Barry Bonds, who captured Hank Aaron's all-time home run mark, too. And while it's fair to begrudge them that, it glosses over an important part of the steroid era that is all too often ignored.
Chances are, we don't get this again. Nobody is coming close to 73. Nobody. The specter of PED use in any potential chase isn't the demon; it's the unlikelihood of any substantive chase at all. Miguel Cabrera is one of the 10 best right-handed hitters ever, and he still hasn't hit 50. Chris Davis is a born power hitter in the prime of his career, and if he goes on a hot streak he'll end up somewhere in the high 50s. In their primes, Ryan Howard maxed out at 58, Jose Bautista at 54, Prince Fielder at 50. If Giancarlo Stanton can stay healthy, he isn't hitting 73, and when Bryce Harper figures everything out, he isn't, either.
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The great shame is not what was taken away. It's what we can't have anymore. Exactly what's happening halfway across the world right now.
The last home run of Wladimir Balentien's career in Major League Baseball traveled 495 feet. Nobody has hit a longer one since. It is a glorious, majestic shot, and it goes impossibly far, as if gravity is no object when a ball meets his bat. Maybe a dozen people in the world can hit a baseball 500 feet. He is one of them.
When players like Balentien fail in the major leagues – he mustered a .655 OPS over 559 plate appearances with Seattle and Cincinnati – many find their second baseball life in Japan. For those who can get past the cultural transition, Japan is baseball Valhalla: the money is good, the atmosphere is great and the adulation is unparalleled. A great baseball player in Japan is every bit the deity of an NFL quarterback. And there is no better baseball player in Japan today than Wladimir Balentien.
For the last five months, he has assaulted the Japanese home run record of 55 shared by three men: Sadaharu Oh, the league's greatest player ever, and a couple of gaijin, or outsiders – American outfielder Tuffy Rhodes and Venezuelan first baseman Alex Cabrera. Unlike the latter two, Balentien has not faced lingering resentment for threatening the legend of Oh. Whatever the reason – a willingness to stray from past xenophobia, a genuine admiration of Balentien or perhaps both – it has unfurled moment after great moment, the sort befitting of a chase for a record still with meaning.
Fans of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows love Balentien. The Swallows are like the Mets to the Yomiuri Giants' Yankees. Their games are in Jingu Stadium, an old relic where Babe Ruth once played, and they struggle to fill it because they're not very good. These days, they come for Coco. That's what they call Balentien. He arrived in 2011, hit 31 home runs, did the same in 2012 and this offseason signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal.
Balentien missed some of spring training to play for the Dutch team in the World Baseball Classic (he's from Curacao) and sat out the first dozen games with an injury. Since then, he has gone on a ceaseless home run binge. Balentien swings a baseball bat like Happy Gilmore did a driver, an all-or-nothing uppercut full of ferocity and terror. He will not be on any instructional videos for form. Balentien doesn't step into the bucket with his front foot; he practically leaps there. He chases balls everywhere, ravenous to swing. Function, though? In baseball, where it's always function over form, one dare not trifle with results, no matter how hideous the form.
Of course, what should be unsightly can be absolutely beautiful. Take Tuesday night, when Balentien faced 25-year-old Kenta Maeda, one of the best starters in Japan. Maeda fed Balentien an eye-high 94-mph fastball, the sort of pitch that was so absurd a Little Leaguer knows better than to chase it. Only Balentien did, and not only did he make contact, the ball catapulted off his bat and over the fence at Jingu for home run No. 54.
Look at the swing. This is not some soft-tossing junkballer trying to goad a bad cut out of an undisciplined player. This is a 94-mph fastball at a man's head, and not only does he have the temerity to swing at the thing, he parks it. No wonder they love him.
On Wednesday, Balentien followed with his 55th home run. Twenty-one games remain. Barring injury, he will break the record. He may obliterate it. And even though it has come with a juiced ball – Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato admitted as much this summer – there is still something unfamiliar to such chases: excitement.
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Gone are the days of pitching around gaijin. When the Giants, Oh's old team, did it to Randy Bass in 1985, it was egregious. It was less so with Rhodes and Cabrera, though the subterfuge made it all the uglier. Now it's going to be like it was with McGwire and Sosa and even Barry Bonds: pitchers afraid to be the ones on perpetual replay, sure, but not burying balls in the dirt or losing them a foot outside. They know Balentien would probably swing at them anyway.
As Jingu pulsed and Balentien basked in it, the TV broadcasters surveyed the scene, a home run record about to fall, and had this exchange, as passed along by Wesley Johnson, an American musician raised in Japan .
Color commentator: "Subarashii."
The rough translation:
"Wonderful, isn't it?"
"It was amazing."
Chris Davis had 37 home runs at the All-Star break. If he kept that pace and played in every one of the Baltimore Orioles' remaining 66 games, he still would've hit just 62, a dozen shy of breaking Bonds' record. So he created a construct: He believed that 61 was still the record, because Maris was ostensibly clean. Short of a Balentienian binge, Davis won't even sniff the manufactured record.
Truth is, we are suckers for records. The Guinness Book is approaching its 60th anniversary. People swim through shark-infested waters, jump from outer space and tightrope across canyons all to set records. Real or manufactured, massive or minute, the record is a bellwether because it is something new, and every one of us wants to believe we're seeing something no human being ever has before.
There are still records that would entrance the country like Wladimir Balentien is doing in Japan. When a batter reaches 40 consecutive games with a hit – the last to do it was Pete Rose in 1978 with 44 – there will be live break-ins for every at-bat to see if he can possibly reach 56 and tie Joe DiMaggio. Even if it's not a record, a .400 season carries with it an unmatched mysticism, better than a 35-point-per-game scorer in basketball or a 2,000-yard rusher in football or even a 200-point hockey season. Because baseball holds so tightly onto its history, onto its numbers, its records matter more.
Japan is about to crown a new home run king, and it's going to be a joyous occasion, one in the making for nearly 50 years. Japan's cultural evolution allowed this moment, and to see it reaped in this fashion, with 21 games left, time to set and reset and reset the record, is a moment for which fans in the United States have every right to be jealous. Not because McGwire and Sosa and Bonds stole Major League Baseball's past.
They stole its future, too.