Even before Aaron Judge's 62nd home run sailed over the left-field wall in Texas on Tuesday, and long before it was a certainly that Judge would actually break Roger Maris's American League single-season record for homers, there had been murmurings about just who, exactly, was the real home-run king.
The tiny asterisk that has been attached, even if only by implication, to Barry Bonds' name was suddenly thrust under a microscope again this week. In the search for baseball "purity," however, no one's hands are completely clean.
"Congratulations to Aaron Judge and his family on Aaron's historic home run number 62! You are all class and someone who should be revered. For the MAJORITY of the fans, we can now celebrate a new CLEAN HOME RUN KING!" tweeted Roger Maris Jr. tweeted.
There is no actual asterisk next to Bonds' name — officially, his numbers stand — but Major League Baseball has given the former-Giants' superstar the cold shoulder by denying him a place in the Hall of Fame in a not-so-subtle but incredibly passive aggressive insinuation that Bonds' legacy is sullied.
"The 'asterisk' idea has stubbornly persisted in public debate over the years through changing numbers and transformative circumstances," the New York Times writes. "With it, the so-called steroid era persistently ripples through modern times."
"Because of historical denialism, it was reported in some places that New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge broke Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record with his 62nd blast. He didn’t," the Washington Post reported. "The record is 73, set by should-be Hall of Fame outfielder Barry Bonds on Oct. 7, 2001. Much of the sports journalism profession should regret the error.
"It is not surprising that the keepers of the sport have not made this clear. They rarely do," continued Post writer Kevin B. Blackistone. "Over the years, they’ve selectively disguised dishonesty in baseball under the cloak of folklore and corrected the record only under duress."
Blackistone dissected a number of baseball legends who still sit upon gilded pedestals: Cap Anson, a venerated Hall of Fame player from the 1800s, established baseball's color line; Babe Ruth is still revered as baseball's greatest legend "despite his excelling during the 60 years when Black athletes weren't allowed to play the game"; Bobby Thomson’s 1951 pennant-winning walk-off home run for the New York Giants, aka "The Shot Heard ’Round the World," was at least partly the result of stealing signs and relaying coming pitches to the batter — something that was repeated by the 2017 champion Houston Astros. There are even unverified rumors that Mickey Mantle once received an injection that was "a cocktail of steroids and amphetamines." When Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to pass Babe Ruth and set the MLB single-season record, the American League had moved to a 162-game schedule from the 154 in Ruth's time — eight extra games in which to score homers.
"But Maris and Mantle, Thomson and Ruth, and all those who’ve excelled in between and around them — except for Bonds and a few of his peers — still pass baseball’s purity test," Blackistone said.
Even Roger Maris Jr., who seems to be on a Quixotic quest for purity, came under scrutiny for an old photo.
This you hypocrite? pic.twitter.com/eK7ZECjxu7— SamInTrenton (@SamInTrenton) October 5, 2022
After finding out in 2010 that Mark McGwire had used performance-enhancing drugs in his 1998 record-breaking season of 70 home runs, Maris Jr. was quoted as saying that he was "disappointed," and that Roger Maris' record should be restored based on the facts that were revealed. "In my eyes, he's the home run hitter of all time."
Are we due for some kind of reckoning in baseball?
In 2012, The Bleacher Report said: Major League Baseball Must Delete [Barry Bonds'] Records or Move on from Him. "[The] MLB cannot have it both ways. If the 'deciders' position is that using banned substances means the alleged user cheated, then delete the records he holds.
"That has not happened, and it never will."
There is actually precedent for changing past records in sports. "The NCAA, for example, has vacated wins, awards and championships from programs, so the [MLB] could do the same," wrote Clutch Points. "But they haven’t, and the official website of the league boasts the names Bonds, McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa in its record books."
Who is ensnared in the circle of complicity when considering the steroid-era? The answer is everyone, even fans. Baseball enjoyed enormous ratings when Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa were bashing homers, and we watched with rapt attention. "Sluggers and home runs were used as a marketing focus," Clutch Points said, especially in the wake of baseball's lockout season in 1994. Did some of us feel let down when we learned the baseball equivalent of Santa Claus not being real, and that many of those homers we cheered for were chemically induced?
And what of steroid-era MLB commissioner Bud Selig? "Maybe I should have said more," Selig was quoted as saying in 2016 when asked why he didn't speak out against the use of steroids. (The MLB did not begin testing players for performance-enhancing drugs with penalty until 2004, the New York Times explains, a few years after the home run record was broken, and broken again.)
"It's incredible that a man as honored and lauded as Selig has been — a man who has been praised for his savvy and effectiveness as a leader and, eventually, a negotiator — had never considered using the bully pulpit to deal with what he has claimed to be his most vexing problem as commissioner," wrote Craig Calcaterra for NBC Sports in 2016.
Bud Selig was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 2017. "Many of the stars who helped him propel the sport into more popularity, notably Bonds, were not," Clutch Points said. "Clearly, steroid usage benefitted the league as a whole."
The road to so-called purity is knee-deep with muck.
Aaron Judge's extraordinary accomplishment has been tarnished by the re-litigation of baseball's unresolved past. "Seventy-three is the record," Judge himself said in September. "No matter what people want to say about that era of baseball, for me, they went out there and hit 73 homers and 70 homers.
"And that, to me, is what the record is."
John Thorn, M.L.B.’s official historian, was quoted by the New York Times as saying: "In baseball there is neither crying nor the asterisk. No excuses, no pointless shorthand directing you to wrinkle your nose."
Congratulations to Aaron Judge. Now will we see him in a Giants' uniform next year?
Top Image: Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Pool via Getty Images