The (new) home run king
If you watch a lot of track and field, and I do, at some point you may get frustrated at the near impossibility of world leaders in certain events to set a new world record. The best example is in the women’s 100 and 200 meters, where the late Florence Griffith-Joyner holds both of these marks at 10.49 and 20.34 seconds, respectively. Those records were both set in 1988. Reagan was still President. The Soviet Union existed. People still thought that Milli Vanilli could sing. In athletic years, which are kind of like dog years, this is like the world’s fastest computer still being an abacus. It physiologically makes no sense.
Most of us believe, or at least those of us who care to acknowledge the obvious, that Flo Jo set her marks with the assistance of copious amounts of performance enhancing drugs. Only she was never caught, and thus the records still stand. That’s unlike Ben Johnson, who was caught at the 88 Olympics and whose gaudy 9.79 men’s 100-meter record was stricken from the books, only to be replaced by someone who likely cheated as well but was never caught. Those artificially high marks make the relative normalcy of human progress nearly impossible. Which is why we’re still waiting for someone, anyone, to finally take Flo Jo off the books.
Such is now the storyline with Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, who just hit his 60th home run of the season with 15 games still to play. That puts him one behind the American League record of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961, a mark he’ll likely break in the next several days. It also puts him tied for 8th overall, trailing Barry Bonds and the 73 home runs he hit in 2001. He’s also trailing Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who occupy 2nd through 6th place in seasons from 1998 to 2001, when the long ball was king and major league stadiums started to look like little league fields. It’s also now the period known as the steroid era, where we’ve grown to assume that the majority of power hitters, and many other position players, were using some form of performance enhancing drug, all kept quietly below the surface to the amusement of adoring fans who grew to love this new form of baseball. All that came crashing down with confessionals, hearings, denials, tests, and enough smoke to burn down an entire sport – which it almost did. Which also put everything we once knew and held dear about records and statistics in a sport that currencies in records and statistics in complete upheaval. What do these records mean? Does Barry Bonds’ 73 count? Is Roger Maris still the home run king? They remain largely unanswered as we speak.
Which leads us to today, when Aaron Judge, a beloved member of America’s most storied franchise, is on the precipice of breaking the old record. And the question is, what does that mean? And how should it be celebrated? For sure, many people are treating it like this is the real thing. That when Judge hits 62, he is the new king. For others, it’s a great accomplishment, but 73 is 73. And without a smoking gun, life moves on.
The reality is, there is no fair and satisfying way to adjudicate this record. Aaron judge will likely end up with 66 home runs, and its standing in baseball purgatory is a hollow victory at best. This is why I’ve always tried to appreciate sport in the present and in context, as the variability of history is simply too unstable and often unkind. So when it comes to whether Aaron Judge or Barry Bonds is the homerun king, I suppose my answer is, I don’t really care.
Of course, this also feeds into our hopeful assumptions about right and wrong, about who cheated and who didn’t. That Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were dirty, but Roger Maris was clean. Perhaps this is true, and I’m certainly not suggesting otherwise. I’m simply saying that for every performance in sport, it’s wise to remember the phrase, that we know of.
That’s what I’m saying right now about Jamaican sprinter Shericka Jackson and American Gabrielle Thomas, both who are getting tantalizingly close to Flo Jo’s long standing 100-meter record. We certainly can’t change the past in sports, track or baseball, but we can always cheer for the future.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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