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I love Barry Bonds for the same reason I love Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.  I love a good bad guy.  I love Jack Nicholson in The Departed, Christopher Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and Barry Bonds as the all-time and single-season home run record holder.

The man played the bad guy his entire career, but saved the best for last.  We thought he was the antagonist in the “prime” of his career – pre-1999 – but he only became more despicable as the film progressed.  But even as his character became more detestable, or more fascinating, his audience grew.  Even the fans who hated Bonds – most outside of San Francisco – watched.  What Bonds did to himself in order to hit a baseball better than anyone else in the world was captivating.

Joe Pesci was the villain you loved to hate in Goodfellas.

I know Barry Bonds was a jerk.  I had a good feeling he was using performance-enhancing drugs.  I knew Hank Aaron was the perfect person to hold the all-time home run record.  I didn’t want Bonds to break it.  Despite knowing all of this, when Bonds came to the plate, I couldn’t turn away.  He is one of the most interesting characters in the history of the game.

I loved Bonds as a kid because he was the best baseball player in the game – nothing more.  I didn’t read the columns or the articles.  I read the statistics page and Bonds was all over it.  His numbers could be found among the league leaders in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, stolen bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, and he was also one of the great left fielders in the game.

I remember reading reports from spring training in 1999 that Bonds had gained something like 30 pounds of muscle over the offseason.  In the heart of the steroid era, this was not rare.  Baseball players claimed they simply learned how to train more effectively in the offseason.  They didn’t mention the illegal drugs they were using.

But much like the rest of the country, I turned a blind eye as I was too busy the previous season watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa steal every headline and magazine cover they could.  Many fans had their doubts even then, but who cares, home runs are fun!  Plus, who’s Roger Maris anyway?  To many, he was a grumpy guy from North Dakota who had a couple of good seasons and then faded from the limelight.

It was hard not to root for and shutter every time Christopher Waltz was on-screen.

Sosa and McGwire destroyed Maris’s single-season record like they were cheating.  What else could they do?  Neither player could do more than blast the ball hundreds of feet and knock in runners.  They struck out a lot and weren’t known for their defense.  Sosa had some speed, but nothing to brag about and McGwire was a liability on the basepath.  Barry Bonds could hit home runs, knock in runners, play wonderful defense, steal bases, avoid strikeouts, get on base and go from first to third on a single.  Bonds was a better baseball player by far.  But Bonds was not a self-confident man.  He needed the attention.  He needed everyone to know he was the best, but in the summer of 1998, no one outside of San Francisco noticed.  Baseball fans were too busy watching two steroid-injected behemoths rocket long ball after long ball.

Barry Bonds, the greatest player of the last decade, spent the offseason saying to himself, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  If the public wanted steroid-fueled home runs – if that’s what made baseball players famous – he’d give them home runs like they’d never seen before.

Has there been a better villain actor in film history than Jack Nicholson?

He spent 1999 on the disabled list for much of the season, probably not figuring the right mixture of workout to drugs.  In 2000, he figured it out.  From 2001 through 2004, Bonds was playing baseball on Beginner mode while the rest of the league was on Expert.  The years 2001 through 2004 Bonds was holding up his middle finger to baseball fans saying, “You said you liked home runs?  I gave you home runs.  What, you only like it when guys with smiles on their faces do it?  I didn’t know that was a stipulation.  I can’t stop now.  Here I come, Henry.”

I love Henry Aaron and I think he’s one of the greatest to play the game while also being a good man.  Barry Bonds is not a good man, but I’m glad he holds the record.  Too many baseball fans want purity from the game.  The individual game will give you purity – a cleanly fielded ground ball, a double in the gap, a knee-buckling curveball for a called strike three.  There is purity in the game, but not in the league.  If you don’t want records broken by those who you believe shouldn’t break them, don’t keep them.  If you don’t like players using performance-enhancing drugs, don’t obsess over the overrated statistic that is the home run (https://tripleinthegap.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/ban-the-home-run/).

Barry Bonds did not sell nuclear secrets to the Soviets.  He did not start an unnecessary war.  He defiled his body to make himself an even better baseball player.  He took drugs that made his head pumpkin sized and break some meaningless records.  He shot up to make up for the love his father never gave him.  He hurt himself, his reputation and eclipsed two meaningless records.  He has not hurt a soul except his own, yet fans act as if the man stole third base … literally stole every third base from every baseball field in America.  He did not hurt the game, only himself.

Every antagonist. Bonds's was baseball fans who took their love for the game too far.

It is in spite of the angry fans calling for Bonds’ head that I appreciate what he did.  Baseball fans put too much emphasis on the home run and its records.  Bonds spent a career spreading his skills across a vast number of statistical categories, but after the fiasco that was the 1998 season, no one seemed to care about any of those categories, so Bonds obliged them.

Fans complain that an asterisk should be placed next to his all-time home run record: not necessary.  In every bar, barber shop, restaurant, ballpark and home in America, fans will discuss their favorite baseball players and the topic of sluggers comes up they’ll talk about Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Killebrew, Griffey Jr., Thome and Jackson.  When someone suggest they add Bonds to that list, someone will scoff at the idea, a few others will second the complaint and the topic will move on.  When children look at the record books and ask their mother about Barry Bonds, she’ll tell her kids about Bonds and why he had so many home runs and those kids will remember.

I will tell my kids another story.  I’ll tell them how the nation became overly obsessed with the home run in the 1990s and our attention was drawn from interest in a good baseball game to a good slugfest.  I’ll tell them how the greatest player of his generation mocked the nation’s notion of a good baseball game by increasing the absurdity of that notion.

Barry Bonds: baseball’s greatest villain.

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For over a decade, ignorant baseball fans pleaded that Pete Rose was innocent and never bet on baseball.  They believed every word Charlie Hustle told them.  Why did they believe him?  He was their “hero”.  They believed his hollow lies despite the mountain of evidence against him and the fact that, in leaving baseball, he signed a statement accepting his banishment as long as the commissioner did not unveil the evidence to the public.

Then fourteen years after his banishment, Rose released My Prison Without Bars and admitted to betting on Cincinnati Reds games he managed.   This seemed to hit his backers and fans like a punch to the stomach, but they just came up with new arguments to back up the all-time hits leader.  Well, he didn’t bet against his team.  So he tells us. 

Now we have come to the third phase of the Pete Rose saga.  Many are now saying what Pete Rose did isn’t as bad as what the steroid users had been doing.  Alex Rodriguez broke the rules just as much as Rose did, they say.  If a steroid user can make the hall of fame, so should Rose, they say.  They hurt the game just as much as Rose.

I strongly disagree.

I would never give Pete Rose a vote for the hall of fame.  At the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that Rose was one of the greatest players of all time.  No one played the game harder on the field and no one disrespected it more off.

I would vote Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens to the hall on the first ballot while admitting they took performance-enhancing drugs (PED).

I hate to break it to the steroid-user haters out there, but there’s likely already a steroid-user in the hall already.

“There was another player now in the Hall of Fame who literally stood with me and mixed something and I said ‘What’s that?’ and he said ‘it’s a Jose Canseco milkshake.’  And that year that Hall of Famer hit more home runs than ever hit any other year.” – Tom Boswell, Washington Post

Who broke the rules?
Every major league clubhouse has the rule stated on the wall: Gambling will result in lifetime banishment. This includes association with gamblers and betting on games of which the player is not a participant.  Rose looked at this rule from his rookie season of 1963 through his final season as manager with the Reds in 1989.  After breaking records and accumulating millions of fans, Rose may have felt the rule didn’t apply to him or, because of his stature, he could slip by unnoticed.

Rose broke baseball’s biggest rule when he bet on baseball.  Today, it’s still baseball’s biggest rule.  A report on a player betting on baseball would be a much bigger story than anyone using PED.

A strong argument can be made to say using PED was encouraged for a time – it’s called 1998.  Fans may not have consciously realized it, but baseball was promoting the use of steroids as the nation stopped, captivated by the heroics of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and their quest to break the single-season home run record (https://tripleinthegap.wordpress.com/2010/01/31/the-real-single-season-home-run-record/).

In 1998, the steroid snowball could be held by a small child, but it was developing.  The nation had two lovable sluggers in a friendly competition for a 37-year-old record.  Everyone turned a blind eye to the inhuman size of these men and the way they – even when they swung late at a 98-mph fastball – could flick a ball over the opposite-field fence.  Steroid users were cute in 1998.  They smiled for the cameras and brazed the covers of magazines.

But by 2001, the snowball turned into an avalanche.  It was then that two protagonists turned into one giant antagonist and fans started questioning the power surge.  That’s when Barry Bonds showed everyone what the best player of his era could do on steroids.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa?, Bonds thought to himself.  Pfft!  They’re one-trick ponies.  Watch this.

Then Bonds broke their records.  He broke them without the smile.  Bud Selig and America didn’t like it: hence, strong anti-steroid rules.

What made the Selig Era so troubling, looking back, is that there were much greater incentives to use than to not use. Baseball wasn’t testing. Baseball was proudly peddling home runs. The odds of getting caught were miniscule. Nobody seemed to care. And the health issues that steroids cause are fuzzy and disputed and, anyway, simply not a strong enough deterrent to prevent a lot of people from using them.” – Joe Posnanski, si.com

The same could be said for the amphetamine era; an era that last much longer than the steroid era.  Unfortunately for Rose, if there was a gambling era, it ended at the 1919 World Series.  In good ways and bad, Rose was one of a kind.  After 1919, there hasn’t been a gambling era.  There’s been no incentive to gamble on baseball, especially since the free-agency era with salaries at astronomical levels.

Rose knows about 1919.  He knows what happened to Joe Jackson after being convicted of gambling, one of the greatest players of his era – banned for life.  Do the consequences need to be clearer?  What did Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens see when their peers took illegal drugs to improve their game?  National fame and further riches: that’s what they saw.

There’s more than one PED
Fans love to look down on steroid users because steroid users have the big records.  They hit home runs.  When are baseball fans going to grow up and realize the home run is overrated?

“I don’t know why people like the home run so much.  A home run is over as soon as it starts…. The triple is the most exciting play of the game.  A triple is like meeting a woman who excites you, spending the evening talking and getting more excited, then taking her home.  It drags on and on.  You’re never sure how it’s going to turn out.” – George Foster

Why aren’t more fans complaining about all the other statistics busting at the seams because of other PED?  Amphetamines have been fueling baseball for decades and no one seems to care.  No one cares even though now that they’ve been banned from the game and players actually seem to be aging.  There has been a huge drop off of statistics for players over the age of 32 since the banishment of amphetamines and steroids.  How many hits would Rose have had without the help of “greenies”?  How long would his career have gone on?  Dare I ask, how many home runs would Hank Aaron have hit?

Why do we care about two records (single-season and all-time home runs) and none of the others?

What about cocaine?  Cocaine was a huge problem in the 1980s and no one is calling for Tim Raines’ stolen base numbers to be taken away.  As long as players weren’t popping pills for the cameras or taking out their vile of cocaine at second base, it was easy to get away with these PED before baseball stepped in and banned them.  Amphetamines and cocaine users don’t grow gigantic muscles and, more importantly, they don’t break home run records.

Not only is there loads of evidence against Rose in regards to betting on baseball that the public has never seen (Rose, you can thank the graciousness of the late Bartlett Giamatti for that), but there’s also people out there who know about Rose’s use of amphetamines.  But who cares about that?  No one because amphetamines didn’t help Rose hit home runs (at least not a lot of them).  In other words, Rose also used performance-enhancing drugs.

Hall of fame
Many of Rose’s backers, despite knowing he bet on baseball, feel he deserves a spot in the hall of fame based on his playing statistics and legacy.  Some believe Bud Selig can wave his magic wand and suddenly Rose will be in Cooperstown.

I’d be curious to see if the commissioner ever did allow Rose back into baseball what the voters would do.  Many don’t realize that the baseball hall of fame isn’t a part of Major League Baseball.  It is an institution on its own.  It’s not up to MLB to let Rose in – it’s up to the voters.  The voters can write Rose in now and there’s usually a few who do, but not enough to get him into the hall, let alone the five-percent needed to get a player on the next year’s ballot.

Steroid users only wanted to improve their game and to keep up with the competition.  They still wanted to win the World Series and beat their rivals.  The goal of the game was still to win it.  The reason there are rules against gambling is because it turns the game on its head and it becomes a show.  Steroid users did alter the game, but their goal remained the same.  Unless the evidence on Rose is released, we may never know what his intentions were.  I don’t trust his opinion, I know that.

Rose won’t be forgotten
We know Barry Bonds took PED and that he hit 762 home runs.  Just because his name is on top of the home run list in the record books, doesn’t mean he has to be the home run king in your mind.  Hank Aaron can still be your home run king just like how Rose can be in your hall of fame.

Steroid users should get a vote, only with a much higher standard – the entire era included (non-steroid users).  The public will never know all the answers to the steroid-era, just like we’ll never know who was using amphetamines, who was gambling on baseball, who corked their bats and who cheated on their wives.

Pete Rose is one of the greatest players of all time and he doesn’t need the hall of fame to prove it.  We know!  Just because Bob Dylan didn’t win any Grammy’s in the sixties doesn’t mean we don’t know his music was revolutionary.

Pete, you were one of the all-time greats.  We know it.  We won’t forget you.  You just can’t come back to the ballpark with us.

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The first criticism I heard about Ken Burns’ new documentary, Baseball: The 10th Inning, was from my parents.  Being the good mid-west people they are, they’re tired of hearing about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  So am I, but at the same time: what’s done is done.  They told me it contained too much Yankees and Red Sox.  This turned me off, but then I thought about it and realized it would be very difficult to make a documentary about baseball from 1992 through 2009 without including those two teams.

Having said that, I loved Ken Burns’ new addition to his original nine-part series.  Burns takes his best sources from the original series like George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Thomas Boswell and Roger Angell and puts them right back in front of the camera for a great perspective on the last two decades of the game.  Burns also calls on new opinions to the game like Howard Bryant, Joe Torre and Pedro Martinez.

Burns gives great perspective on the steroids era, starting with Jose Canseco and the Oakland A’s of the late eighties and flows to Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and eventually Barry Bonds.  Almost every story that is told in The 10th Inning I’ve heard before, but never from the perspectives they’re told from here.  It’s great to hear of Pedro Martinez’s dominance from 1997 through 2003 from Pedro as well as noted sportswriters.  I’ve known the story of Ichiro as I’ve been watching him play since his first game in 2000, but never really thought about what an anomaly he was from the rest of the game.  While the name of the game in the beginning of the century was, as George Will puts it, “Get two guys on base, get Godzilla to the plate to knock it into Tokyo Bay,” Ichiro was playing like a throwback to the deadball era and Negro leagues.  Ichiro is Cool Papa Bell!

 

Ken Burns

 

The story of Bonds cannot be ignored and Burns tackles it well from a small biography of his father, Bobby, to his time with Pittsburgh and onto his big signing with San Francisco before the 1993 season.  Burns shows the viewer how Bonds became the egotistical player he was.

I was worried Burns would go through all five of the Yankees World Series victories in depth, but instead, we only get to really know the 1996 Yankees.  That team happened to be the one New York squad I was rooting for (and likely, the rest of the country).  Joe Torre gives great insight to that team along with how the Series went down after losing the first two at home to the Braves.

Burns uses a lot more players than the previous nine innings and every one of them contribute well to the story.  Omar Vizquel, Ichiro, Torre and Martinez all show they have a great personality to match their skills on the diamond.

If it isn’t obvious that Burns is a Red Sox fan by the film, then watch the bonus footage and be thankful most of it was cut.  There is a full games highlights at Fenway Park as well as the entire guided tour in the special features.  Much of the interviews are certainly worth watching, especially from the ballplayers.

Much like my attitude at the time, I was happy to listen to the stories of the 2004 Red Sox, but was glad to move on once it was done.  Thankfully, Burns doesn’t dwell on the 2007 team and only mentions them along with the other World Series winners from 2005 through 2009.

Fans of small market teams may feel left out of this four-hour film, but this isn’t the All-Star Game and everyone can’t be included.  I would have loved to see more on the Twins, but how much is there to tell to the casual fan who’s not from the midwest?

I think the greatest compliment Ken Burns’ original documentary received was from my girlfriend who didn’t know anything about baseball or even care about it.  I was watching the second inning and Ty Cobb was being profiled.  She watched a few minutes and said, “I could watch this.”  When even the non-baseball fan enjoys it that much, imagine how much real baseball fans can get out of it.

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The home run is overrated.  It’s especially overrated after the last 15 years of baseball when the 600 home run club went from three members to seven.  It’s overrated and it’s overdone.  I can understand how veterans like Ty Cobb scoffed at the new fame of Babe Ruth.  The home run requires little strategy – hit the ball over the fence and everyone one base and yourself scores a run.  The home run is a rally killer.  Your team is getting walks and hits and then someone hits a home run.  Sure, the team just scored at least one run, but if there was anyone on base, there isn’t anymore.   

Now, when a player spanks a double into the gap, that’s excitement.  A double into the gap or corner or off the wall brings at least two runs home with the bases loaded and when it’s over, there’s at least one man left standing in scoring position.  There are more possibilities for the on-deck hitter after a double.  To paraphrase Bull Durham, it’s more democratic.  Home runs are fascist.  

The walls of Fenway Park have contained many doubles over the years - just ask Speaker and Webb.

 

There’s mystery to a double.  There’s speed to a double.  There’s hustle in a double and yes, there is some power involved too, but in moderation.  Doubles down the line are usually within a few feet of being outs – a hard line drive just past a diving first of third baseman’s glove and into the corner.  Doubles in the gap create a whirlwind of outfielders scrambling for the ball before it hits the wall.  Sometimes doubles can be, unfortunately, disappointing, when they bounce off the outfield wall.  Television commentators talk about how close the double was to a home run as numerous replays are shown.   

Most baseball fans will tell you who owns the single-season home run record.  They’ll also tell you who owns the all time home run record.  Unfortunately, it’s the same person: Barry Bonds.  Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 and 762 for his career – two records that, I hope, are never broken.  I don’t wish them to remain because of the person who hit them, but I’m not a big fan of the home run and would prefer more strategy and … doubles!  

Few baseball fans will tell you who is the single-season or all time leader in doubles.  Can you guess?  

These are records I want to see broken in my lifetime.  The double is immune to the size of the ballpark.  It’s more difficult to hit a home run in Safeco Field or Petco Park, but the double can still thrive in such spacious outfields.  Because of this, the doubles records will be broken.  But who will celebrate such a miniscule milestone?  With the home run numbers falling (thankfully), the double should be celebrated.  

Tris Speaker’s all time doubles record of 792 can be broken, but it won’t be easy.  Speaker spent 22 seasons compiling a record that has stood since 1925 when he passed Napoleon Lajoie.  Speaker spent nine seasons with the Boston Red Sox, followed by 11 in Cleveland, one in Washington and his final season with the Philadelphia Athletics.  At the age of 35, the Indians’ outfielder hit a career best, 59 doubles to go with his 133 RBI, 130 runs scored and a .380-.469-.610 offensive line.   

Tris Speaker's career doubles record has been approached and can be broken.

 

One might think a record that’s been held since 1925 won’t be approached by today’s players who play a much different game.  No, it can be broached and Pete Rose nearly did it.  Rose smacked 746 two baggers in his career.  Of course, Rose hit his last double in 1986.  Can any of today’s player’s approach the record?  Craig Biggio did.  The longtime Astro hit 668 doubles (5th all time) in the era of the home run.  Biggio didn’t play by the Selig era rules and he will be rewarded for this when it’s his turn to go to Cooperstown.    

Other players to retire in the last twenty years in the top fifteen are George Brett (665, 6th), Paul Molitor (605, 11th), Cal Ripken (603, 13th), Bonds (601, 14th) and Luis Gonzalez (596, 15th).   

Speaker’s 85-year old record can be broken and there are a few active players with a shot.  The active leader in doubles is Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez with 562.  Pudge is in the twilight of his career at the age of 38 and will probably not approach Speaker.  Alex Rodriguez, the newest member of the 600 home run club, has 469 doubles.  He’d need 323 more to eclipse Speaker, which would average out to 50 doubles over the next six and a half seasons.  This seems much more unlikely than A-Rod passing Bonds on the home run list (please don’t).   

Then there’s the case of the great Albert Pujols.  The St. Louis first baseman has 410 two baggers and he’s still only 30 years old.  Pujols would need 382 to tie Speaker.  This averages out to about 40 doubles a year for nine and a half more seasons.  Through nine full seasons, Pujols has averaged 43 a season.  Speaker’s record is possible, but still not likely unless Pujols  proves to be the next Hank Aaron and hardly declines through his thirties.  

There’s the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera with 283 at the age of 27.  He’s averaged 36 doubles in his first seven seasons.  If Cabrera kept up this average through 13 seasons, he’d have 789, three short of Speaker.  Cabrera has thirty this season already.   

David Wright is just behind Cabrera with 248 and is the same age.   

The truth is, a player needs an early start (Speaker was 19 when he broke in with Boston and 21 when he played his first full season) and needs a lot of plate appearances (Speaker had nearly 12,000) to approach the record.   

But there is the possibility of the single-season doubles record held by little known Earl Webb.  Webb knocked 67 doubles in 1931 for the Red Sox.  The most he hit in any other season was 30 in 1930.  Webb’s doubles record sounds similar to Roger Maris’ former single-season home run record – one and done.   

The closest a modern player has come to approaching the single-season record was Todd Helton in 2000 when he hit 59 doubles.  Carlos Delgado hit 57 in the same season and Garrett Anderson (2002), Craig Biggio (1999), Nomar Garciaparra (2002) and Brian Roberts (2009) all hit 56.  I remember rooting for the Twins’ Chuck Knoblauch in 1994 to break the record before the strike stopped the season.  The Minnesota second baseman had 45 through 109 games.   

A modern player can top Webb’s 79-year old mark.  A player such as Roberts, Cabrera, Grady Sizemore, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria or Jason Werth.  It will take a lot of plate appearances, so a batting spot in the top three would be beneficiary.  The right ballpark also helps and judging by Speaker and Webb’s records, Fenway Park is a doubles park.  Based on these factors, Pedroia has the most going for him.  He had 54 in his MVP season of 2008 and 48 the following year.  Injuries have slowed his attempts this year, but he’s still only 26.   

Home run statistics became as overdone as the reality television.  It’s time to focus on the double.  

If anyone can approach Webb's single-season record, it's Dustin Pedroia.

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It’s okay that baseball players took steroids.  I’ve come to this conclusion.  It’s the new edge.  The problem is they broke a bunch of records of guys who never took steroids.  Of course, most of these men had their own edge.  Baseball fans want to throw out everything Barry Bonds did because he took steroids.  Why are we so quick to toss out everything this man did against the greatest competition the game has ever seen and we’re okay with Babe Ruth hitting 714 home runs off of the best white boys the beginning of the century had to offer?  Until Mark McGwire came around, everyone knew Roger Maris held the single-season home run record of 61.  Of course, for decades following the 1961 season, there were many who didn’t want him to have that throne since the season was expanded to 162 games that year and it was an expansion season, thinning the pitching talent.

Baseball people like to compare one season’s stats to another, but steroids or not, nothing is really comparable.  Fans might as well be comparing Jose Canseco’s 1988 AL MVP season where he hit 42 home runs and stole 40 bases to Michael Jordan’s 1988 season.

There are a number of reasons for the increase of home runs in the late 90s and early 00s and one of them are steroids.  It’s becoming more and more obvious that a large number of players used performance enhancing drugs (PED) and it wasn’t just the hitters.  I recall the story of Eric Gagne of the Dodgers facing Barry Bonds in San Francisco – both were later linked to PED.  Gagne’s first pitch was 99 mph and Bonds pulled it foul for what would have been a home run if hit 30 feet to the left.  Gagne’s next pitch registered 101 mph and Bonds drove it deep into the San Francisco night for a home run.  For those who want to take away the records, you can count that one – the playing field was evenly skewed.

Bonds set the single-season home run record in 2001 with 73 home runs.  Mark McGwire had set it just three years earlier with the entire nation watching with 70.  Real baseball fans will look at the numbers and realize they’re higher than other seasons, but will look back and appreciate the real home run sluggers.  The guys who did it without PED, tiny ballparks, tightly-wound balls, expansion teams to thin the pitching, another 50 homer hitter hitting behind him and real competition on the mound, on the field and in vying for his job.

Although impressive, Bonds’s stats were skewed by PED.

Based on competition and the blind eye of Major League Baseball, every record holder deserves to be where they are.  It’s up to the fan to pick the best.  This essay is not about who should be in the hall of fame.  It’s not about who’s a good person.  It’s not about who’s a cheater.  It’s about who hit a lot of home runs over one season despite tough competition.  That competition consists of the players on the field, the physical properties of the baseball itself, the home ballpark he’s playing in for 77+ games a season and anything else this baseball fan thinks of.  Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs will stand for many years as the most home runs hit during a single season.  He deserves that title, but backing that is another story.  Bonds may have hit the most home runs over a season, but his 2001 performance is not the most impressive season put together for a slugger.  Here are my thoughts on the top single-season home run seasons of all time.

1 – Barry Bonds 73 (2001).
2 – Mark McGwire 70 (1998).
3 – Sammy Sosa 66 (1998).
4 – Mark McGwire 65 (1999).
5 – Sammy Sosa 64 (2001).
6 – Sammy Sosa 63 (1999).

All six of these records need to be discounted for the performance enhancing drugs they were using, but that’s not all.  These men played in a time when new and smaller ballparks were being built every year.  The cookie cutters of the sixties and seventies were falling fast and those concrete donuts normally had high outfield walls that were at least 330 feet from home plate at the corners.  San Francisco’s AT&T Park has a relatively high right-field wall for Bonds to hit over, but it’s very close to the plate.  When I took a tour of the park a few years ago and walked on the field, all I could think is wow, give me a bat and ball and I could hit one over the wall.  Yes, the power alley is 421 feet away, but the right-field foul pole is only 309 feet from home plate.  A short right-field porch, PED and a tightly-wound ball discount Bonds’ 73 2001 home runs.

I’m going to use the excuse of the tightly-wound ball for every record from 1995 on.  Major League Baseball officials will deny it, but I’ve read numerous testimonies that the seams became harder for the pitcher to grip after the 1994 strike.  Not only did the owners and commissioner initially ignore steroids since the increase in home runs was bringing more fans to the parks, but I believe they also released a stronger baseball that would produce more dingers.

In John Feinstein’s book Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, he quotes Mike Mussina on the difference between baseballs before the strike and after.

After the strike, they changed the baseballs.  You could feel it when you put them in your hands.  They’re slicker now, tougher to grip, and they’re wound tighter.  Much tighter.  A year or so after the strike, we were sitting around during a rain delay, talking about how different the baseball felt in your hands.  For some reason, I had kept a few baseballs in my locker from before the strike.  We went and got one and cut it open.  The inside of the ball just lay there; I mean just literally just laid down on the table.  Then we opened up a poststrike ball – it was as if the thing was alive.  It literally stood up on the table next to the one that was just lying there.

I’m going to take away McGwire and Sosa’s records as well for the same reasons – pretty much.  McGwire hit his homers in the old Busch Stadium, which wasn’t exactly a hitters’ paradise, but he did use PED.  Also, 1998 saw the expansion of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, thinning the pitching competition while Big Mac stayed the same.  Sosa not only used PED, a corked bat (possibly, and it’s been proven it doesn’t help), and hit during the same expansion year as McGwire, but he also did this in Wrigley Field, one of the greatest hitters’ parks in the baseball history.  With a wind blowing out, a tight ball and the power alley in left field a mere 368 feet from home plate, Adam Everett could poke an opposite field home run.

7 – Roger Maris 61 (1961).

I’d love to say that this was the most impressive home run season.  Maris went through hell in a city that treated Babe Ruth like Jesus Christ.  Few wanted Maris to break the record and even the commissioner put an asterisk next to it since major league baseball expanded from 154 to 162 games in 1961.

I will say Maris hit 61 home runs that summer during a time when the game was mostly integrated (even though his own team put a cap on blacks, allowing only Elston Howard to play).  He also hit more homers in a season than anyone at the time under intense media scrutiny.  The man lost hair because of the stress he was going through.  If you haven’t seen Billy Crystal’s film*61, do so now.

Roger Maris had the help of thin pitching, Mickey Mantle and a 296 foot right-field wall.

The arguments against Maris’s 61 home runs are numerous.  Yankee Stadium’s right-field wall was a mere 296 feet from home plate and was the standard height.  That season also saw the expansion of the Washington Senators and California Angels.  Most of the season saw Mickey Mantle batting after Maris.  There’s not a pitcher in 1961 who wanted to pitch around Maris to face Mantle.  Maris saw plenty of juicy fastballs on 3-1 counts.

Sorry Roger, I’ll never put an asterisk next to 61, but it doesn’t impress me as much as others.

8 – Babe Ruth 60 (1927).
9 – Babe Ruth 59 (1921).

Babe may be the greatest player in the history of the game, but his 1927 season doesn’t impress me like it does to others.  Ruth played in the same Yankee Stadium that Maris did (it was built for the Babe).

The big discount to the Babe is that he never faced a black man, let alone a Hispanic, Venezuelan, Dominican, Japanese, Korean, Chinese or many other nationalities in his time.  It wasn’t his fault, but Ruth didn’t face the competition later generations would.  Take one pitcher that Ruth hit multiple home runs against the put Satchel Paige in his place.  Would he still have hit 60 home runs?  No.  He did well against fellow white boys, but we’ll never know what he would have done against the best competition.

10 – Jimmy Foxx (1932), Hank Greenburg (1938), McGwire (1997) and Ryan Howard (2006) 58.

Foxx and Greenburg’s season’s are impressive – more impressive than Ruth’s.  However, they still played in the all-white-boys league, so there are better records to be found.  McGwire did play half of 1997 in Oakland, another pitcher’s park, but he was still using PED.  Howard is another story.

The Philadelphia slugger is a throwback to earlier generations.  He has never been linked to steroids and his power seems to be genuine.  However, he does play in the tiny confines of Citizens Bank Ballpark and hits a tightly-wound ball.  Was his 2006 season a great achievement?  Yes.   Was it the greatest home run season ever?  No.

11 – Luis Gonzalez (2001), Alex Rodriguez (2002) 57.

A-Rod’s reasons are obvious – he told us.  Gonzalez: tight ball, small ballparks and those pipes look suspicious.

12 – Ken Griffey Jr. (1997 & 1998), Hack Wilson (1930) 56.

Griffey, who has one of the sweetest swings in baseball history and has never been linked to PED or shown any symptoms, had the misfortune to play in the tight-ball-steroid era: eliminated.  Wilson played in Wrigley Field against fellow white guys: no go.

13 – Ralph Kiner (1949), David Ortiz (2006), Alex Rodriguez (2007), Babe Ruth (1920 & 1928) 55, Mickey Mantle (1961) 54.

Kiner’s season is the most impressive of these six, but integration had only begun two years earlier and wasn’t in full force yet.

Mantle had Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch and expansion.

David Ortiz may or may not have been using PED, but also had a tight ball and tiny parks.  Ditto A-Rod.

Ruth needs to take a time machine forward and face Bob Gibson. Then we’ll talk.

14 – George Foster (1977), Mickey Mantle (1956), Willie Mays (1965), Mark McGwire (1996), Alex Rodriguez (2001), Jim Thome (2002) 52.

McGwire and A-Rod are the first voted off for previous reasons.  Thome, like Griffey, seems to be a rare natural hitter in a time of prescribed sluggers, but he’s still linked with the era.  The other three guys left are, by far, the most impressive in the group.

Of the three remaining, Mantle will have to take third place.  He had the benefit of Yankee Stadium (for his left-handed at bats), the game wasn’t as integrated as it would become and 1956 showed an average of 0.9 home runs per game per team, up slightly from other seasons.

It is here where the two greatest home run hitting seasons happened.  Mays hit 52 home runs with half of his games at Candlestick Park, known for its harsh conditions by the bay and swirling winds.  His closest competition was his teammate Willie McCovey who finished with 39 round trippers.  Nineteen sixty five wasn’t 1968, but it wasn’t far off in terms of a pitcher’s game.  National League teams average 0.8 home runs a game, a far cry from 1968’s 0.5 a game, but still impressive.  (To show the dramatic drop 1968 took, the average in 1967 was 0.7.)  The game didn’t have the wide nationality it has today, but it was as fully integrated as the times would allow.  It was three years since expansion in the National League and it would be another three before the next expansion season.

Foster’s 52 home runs in 1977 were done for a second-place team in a big park (Riverfront) with high symmetric walls and in a league with teams also averaging 0.8 home runs a game.  Foster’s closest competition had 11 home runs less than him.  The game was even more integrated than in Mays’s day.

It’s very difficult to pick between Foster’s 1977 season and Willie Mays’s 1965 season.  Both players were MVP’s of their league.  Both played in a pitcher’s park.  Both had a slugger to help them in the lineup (McCovey for Mays and Johnny Bench for Foster).

Although the National League averaged the same number of home runs in both seasons, runs scored and hits were significantly lower in 1965.  Add to that the cruddy weather of Candlestick Park and the greatest single-season home run performance is Willie Mays in 1965.

At the age of 34, Willie Mays slugged 52 home runs in 1965 despite the harsh conditions of Candlestick Park.

Greatest home runs seasons

1 – Willie Mays 52 (1965)

2 – George Foster 52 (1977) 

3 – Frank Robinson 49 (1966) 

In his first season in the American League, Robinson destroyed the competition on his way to his second MVP award and first World Series title.  His 49 home runs were in Memorial Stadium, hardly Camden Yards in terms of a hitters’ park.  It was also 1966, two years short of “The Year of the Pitcher”, but not far off.

4 – Mike Schmidt 48 (1980) 

Perhaps the greatest third baseman of all time, Schmidt’s 1980 season could also be argued as the greatest season for a home run hitter.  The National League team average for home runs per game dipped to a very low 0.6 a game at the end of the Jimmy Carter era.  Schmidt also had little help in his own lineup.  The team averaged lower than the league average with 0.5 home runs a game and that includes Schmidt’s numbers.  The next highest tater total on the Phillies was Greg Luzinski with 19.  The World champs also played in Veterans Stadium, the all-too-common cookie cutter with symmetrical and high outfield walls.

You want to call this No. 1?  I wouldn’t argue.

5 – Willie Stargell 48 (1971) 

Before there was Big Papi, there was Pops.  Playing only 141 games, Stargell launched nearly 50 homers in Veterans, I mean, Riverfront, oops, I mean, Three Rivers Stadium.  The National League team home run average was down a bit at 0.7 and the next highest in the lineup was Bob Robertson with 26.  Despite the gaudy numbers (125 RBI, 104 R) Stargell placed second in MVP voting to Joe Torre (.363 AVG, 137 RBI).

With only 139 games, Hammerin’ Hank was right behind Pops with 47 (see Honorable Mention).

Honorable mention: Hank Aaron 47 (1971), Barry Bonds 73 (2001), Cecil Fielder 51 (1990), Mark McGwire 70 (1998), Harmon Killebrew 49 (1964), Andre Dawson 49 (1987), Ted Kluszewski 49 (1954), Ralph Kiner 54 (1949), Babe Ruth 59 (1921), Johnny Mize 51 (1947), Dave Kingman 48 (1979). 

 

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