Aaron Judge’s homers almost always impress, and No. 61 on Wednesday night was no exception — a laser-beam shot that landed in the Blue Jays bullpen amidst huge cheers from the crowd in Toronto.
Baseball history was made and the joy was palpable. The New York Yankees slugger had just tied Roger Maris for the American League, and what some fans consider the “real,” single-season home run record.
No controversy. No debate. No questions. Right?
As anyone who follows the sport knows, baseball has a unique and sometimes infuriating habit of being unable to completely enjoy its biggest moments. Instead of running from that reality, MLB appears to be embracing the chaos of debate.
Judge’s chase for 61 this season and, to a lesser extent, Cardinals star Albert Pujols’ quest for 700 career homers, have brought the game’s prodigious record books and historical debates back to the forefront.
Even if Judge hits No. 62 in the next seven games, MLB‘s records clearly state Barry Bonds is the record-holder with 73 in 2001. Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998 and 65 a year later. Sammy Sosa topped 61 three times in four years from 1998 to 2001.
Those numbers came during baseball’s performance-enhancing drug era.
A sizable chunk of fans believe the numbers from that era are tainted. Roger Maris Jr. — who was in attendance in Toronto on Wednesday — is one of them, saying it’s Judge who is the real home run king.
The 30-year-old Judge has an impeccable reputation in an era during which each player is tested for PEDs during spring training and is subject to random tests during the season and offseason.
“He should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ,” the younger Maris said after Judge matched his dad’s record-setting total with the Yankees in 1961. “I mean, that’s really who he is if he hits 62, and I think that’s what needs to happen.
“I think baseball needs to look at the records and I think baseball should do something.”
That’s probably not going to happen. MLB has tried to dance around the steroid debate by stating Judge is the American League record-holder, which is true. Bonds, McGwire and Sosa all played in the National League.
But since when has anyone really cared about AL records?
The answer is fans usually don’t — unless it can be conveniently used as a euphemism for “real.”
For its part, MLB doesn’t appear eager to embrace the use of asterisks. Neither does the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
MLB has been down that road before. Maris‘ record had an asterisk attached to it for 30 years because he played a 162-game schedule instead of 154 like Babe Ruth did when he hit 60. It remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by former commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record-holder.
Josh Rawitch, the president of the Hall of Fame, said his organization’s role is to stay as agnostic as possible.
“What we just try to focus on is documenting history, regardless of the storylines that may be surrounding it,” Rawitch said “We’ll absolutely have artifacts from the current home run chases, whether it’s Pujols or Judge or any others, but at the same time, we also tell the history of 1998 and we have areas of the museum that focus on the PED period.
“I’d say we don’t tend to inject too many opinions into it.”
Fans, of course, will be happy to fill that void.
Baseball’s record book is the most expansive in the major American sports. Stats on baseball-reference.com go back to 1871 and have been recently updated to include stats from the Negro Leagues, which began to dissolve one year after Jackie Robinson became MLB’s first Black player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
A lot of things in baseball have changed over 150 years. The historical arguments aren’t going away anytime soon.
“In general, baseball has always been about debates and comparing eras,” Rawitch said. “Whether it’s Aaron Judge to Roger Maris or Shohei Ohtani to Babe Ruth, I think that’s part of what makes the sport pretty special.”
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