A few hours before he eclipsed Roger Maris’s single-season home-run record of 61 in 1998, the Hall of Fame allowed Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire to swing Maris’s bat. The Hall had driven it to St. Louis from Cooperstown, N.Y.
The implication was clear. This guy was the best, and now this new guy will be. Long live the king.
Maris was a famously conflicted record setter. A substantial minority of New York Yankees fans were incensed that this shmuck presumed to put the Babe in the shade. They were not shy about letting him know it.
Baseball egged them on by insisting that Maris, himself a Yankee, had to set the record in 154 games – the same runway that Babe Ruth had when he hit 60. In 1961, the season was 162 games. When Maris couldn’t manage it, then-commissioner Ford Frick made a show of putting an asterisk beside his accomplishment.
Reflecting on his remarkable career, Maris once said, “It would have been a hell of a lot more fun if I had not hit those 61 home runs.”
This moment is baseball’s original statistical sin. After that, it was no longer good fun if someone took a run at a long-standing record. Now people had to parse the meaning of each record – did you do it when they only played day games? Did you have to pitch as well as hit? Did you travel by train or have the luxury of transcontinental flights?
When Henry Aaron made his approach on Ruth’s career home-run record, he felt the same rage, spiced with a soupçon of naked bigotry.
But by the time McGwire rolled around, baseball’s marketing instincts had taken over. This was no longer a pastoral game woven into the soul of America. It was football’s kid brother, and losing ground quickly to basketball. McGwire and his partner in home-run crime, Sammy Sosa, were a gift from the gods of TV ratings.
McGwire got there first, well before Maris had done it.
“Nobody can say they put an asterisk on it,” McGwire said the night he hit 62.
To which the rest of us, now having the benefit of hindsight, might say, “Weeeellll …”
The steroid era and its lantern-jawed participants have been largely forgotten by baseball – except as it applies to home runs. It no longer matters who exactly was proved to have done what exactly. All that people know is that for a brief time, shortstops looked like Mr. Olympia contestants and more home runs were hit than at any other time in baseball history.
Major League Baseball officials have taken a soft-Soviet approach to that period – better never to speak of it, see any pictures of it, or celebrate it in any way.
Maris’s record was burned onto the brain of every young fan. How many people can tell you the current single-season record without checking?
Baseball wouldn’t learn its lesson until after hanging its marketing hat on Barry Bonds for most of a decade. The lesson is this – it’s not normal for fully grown pro athletes to start growing again in their 30s.
Despite still holding a lot of the best ones, Bonds killed the baseball record. It’s a discouraged topic. You can talk about it. But getting too excited about this one versus that one is no longer done. Who knows which of baseball’s hidden family secrets might come out if too much attention is encouraged?
Which is a shame. Because right now, New York is getting a do-over. Considering how it treated Maris 60 years ago, it may not entirely deserve it. But it is getting one nonetheless.
Unless the wheels come off the bus, Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge has a more-than-decent chance of passing Maris’s mark this year.
Judge stands on 55 home runs. That’s more than anyone’s had since the thick of the steroid era. He’s got 21 more games to hit six home runs to tie the mark. Games 12, 13 and 14 in that stretch will be played in Toronto.
If baseball had paid someone to 3-D-print their idea of a perfect player, they’d have come up with Judge. He is a huge, fun guy with a smile like a Pixar protagonist. He is an innate performer, while also being apparently egoless.
After he hit his 50th, Judge was asked what it meant.
“It doesn’t mean anything because we lost,” Judge said.
And that is how sports biopics get green-lit.
If Judge were a football player honing in on football’s most hallowed record, you’d ask yourself, ‘What is football’s most hallowed record?’ Because football doesn’t have one. Baseball’s the only sport that gives numbers this much play.
But you hear that? That’s the sound of nothing much. Judge’s record run is being followed by the baseball press, but that hasn’t translated into general interest. (You hear even less about Albert Pujols’s pursuit of 700 career home runs. Pujols has been around so long that he played in the steroid era.)
When McGwire was going for it 20-odd years ago, his running tally featured in nightly news broadcasts. The night he did it – at his home ballpark in St. Louis – it was celebrated like a championship. In retrospect, it may have been baseball’s last, great pan-American moment.
Since shortly after that moment, the sport has been covered in a thin film of suspicion. People still watch it and love it, but they are not fully convinced it is on the up and up. Constant talk about juiced and/or de-juiced balls, as well as last year’s ‘sticky stuff’ scandal, have not done them any favours.
The muted reaction to Judge’s run is the result of fear. What’s not to love about your most marketable player attempting a clean run at your most famous record for your most storied team?
But you also get it. We live in an age when people love to reprosecute past errors. Baseball correctly senses that danger.
But because none of the rest of us run baseball, we can enjoy this one for what it is. It isn’t the overdramatized, transparently grasping media moment of the past, but one fabulous player reaching back into history to link arms with another. It’s a game that has lasted longer than any other in the North American imagination reminding us that it is still capable of making history.