THIRD MAN IN: Hail to the true home run king

Behind the Bench/Sports by

I hate this article. I hate the necessity of this debate. It disgusts me, as it disgusts many, that baseball has become a witch-hunt; a magnet for cynics.

Baseball is a beautiful, unappreciated sport. It is exciting, deeply cerebral and rich with history. But recently, under the ever-expanding cloud of steroid use, it is this thick history that has been barraged by questions of legitimacy. Baseball is a sport of icons and records; people like Ruth, Mays, Mantle, Gehrig, Aaron and Williams have become national heroes, setting records that have sustained interest in the game for generations.

Of all the records, none is more hallowed than the single season home run record-currently held by Barry Bonds. When Babe Ruth smacked 60 home runs in 1927, it became the standard for a generation. Thirty-four years later, Roger Maris eclipsed the Bambino, slugging 61 long balls. Then eight years ago, Mark McGwire set a new plateau with 70 in a season; in the same year, fellow slugger Sammy Sosa also broke Maris’ record by crushing 66 moon shots. Most recently, the ever-controversial Barry Bonds claimed the record in 2001 by hitting 73 homers, passing McGwire.

But since then, evidence has surfaced indicating that Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa were all taking performance enhancing drugs while they were breaking this sacred benchmark. Although none have been convicted of steroid use by either Major League Baseball or the United States judicial system, all three players have been unquestionably deemed guilty in the court of public opinion.

This season, Ryan Howard-the Philadelphia Phillies’ sophomore slugger and 2006 all-star home run derby champion-has bashed 56 home runs and has almost single-handedly dragged the Phils to the top of the National League wild card race. With 19 games remaining in the campaign, Howard will almost certainly break the Maris record of 61 home runs. But if he does pass Maris-and knowing that Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were likely using steroids when they smashed their way past 61-should Ryan Howard be considered the true single season home run champion?

As much as I would love to award that honour to the seemingly clean and drug-free Howard, it’s not possible to do so. None of Bonds, McGwire or Sosa have been convicted in any type of court except for that of public opinion; and at the same time, how does anyone know that Ryan Howard is not doping? It is quite conceivable that he has a new cutting edge, undetectable drug similar to the THG drug which the other three players allegedly used during their runs at the record. Howard only appears clean.

But, with Major League Baseball’s drug testing system in place, if Howard doesn’t test positive for steroids, I believe that he should be considered publicly the true home run champion, although he can never be the official record-book holder of the title. Without a conviction in a court of law, Bonds holds the official record. However, when my son asks me “who hit the most home runs in one season”, I’ll tell him “Barry Bonds has the record, but Ryan Howard-or Roger Maris-is the true home run king.”

When we students partake in our favourite pastime of heavy drinking, conversation often ends up drifting to the game of hypothetical “Would You Rather?”. And essentially, this situation in baseball is a “Would You Rather?” scenario. So, would you rather set the official home run record, yet be known as having done it artificially, assisted by a banned performance enhancer à la Bonds? Or would you rather not set the “official” record, but have the public consider you the clean, true champion like Ruth, Maris and possibly Howard? For me, there can only be one possible answer.