How Giancarlo Stanton legitimized the single-season HR record again

Watch as Giancarlo Stanton drills his 54th home run of the season deep into the stands in Atlanta.

Giancarlo Stanton won’t threaten the single-season home run record. He has a shot at Roger Maris’ 61, which is sort of a consolation prize. But he won’t hit 74 and so Barry Bonds will still stand atop the heap with the 73 he hit in 2001 and all the wishing and fudging and phony moralizing won’t matter.

Unless you want it to matter, in which case what I just wrote was wrong but at least now we can talk about it, which also means that Stanton has accomplished something already: he’s made one of the game’s most important statistical marks matter again. He’s made it fun again, and we can debate 73 vs. 61 without fear of autopsy or foul with …

Well, let’s try it with Jose Bautista, who after Wednesday night has six more home games in his Toronto Blue Jays career. Stanton’s next home run will be his 55th, meaning Bautista can no longer lay claim to holding the record for most homers in a season since 2006. Bautista clubbed 54 in 2010, the most since Ryan Howard’s 58 in 2006, but there was not much whiff of history in Bautista’s season since the final two homers came on Sept. 30.

Unfortunately, if Bautista has any strong feelings one way or another about who holds the record, he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell me. Too much water under the bridge there, I fear, so perhaps one of his more favoured chroniclers will be gifted his deep thoughts. Or maybe be just believes it when he said: “They’re both great Major League ball players. I think both of their accomplishments are outstanding. That’s about it.”

Oh, for god’s sake, man. Work with me on this. You’d think Bautista would have a vested interest in this, since when he erupted for that 54-homer season at the age of 28 after hitting all of 46 in his previous three seasons, he was forced to deal with round-about questions about performance-enhancing drugs because his was an uncomfortable reality: he was the first power ‘outlier’ of the drug testing era. I would argue Bautista’s relationship with much of the media became strained after that point, because he believed people were suspicious of him and in his defence I must say that when it comes to PEDs there has always been a substantial “whispering campaign” against players from the Dominican Republic: they really are held to a different standard.

Stanton will have to deal with none of that, because the game has never devoted as much time or money to drug testing. Even those of us chastened by our experience and, sure, culpability as reporters during the games steroid era – who prefer to say that so and so “has never been suspended for PED use” as opposed to the blanket “he’s a clean player” and who believe that athletes will always be ahead of testers – must acknowledge that the evidence suggests the game is cleaner. As my friend and longtime baseball executive Ned Colletti is fond of saying: “37 years old plays like 37 years old now, not 27.” Look what ESPN’s Buster Olney recently figured out: by the end of the regular season, baseball could have a record 120 players with 20 or more homers, possibly as many as 40 with 30 home runs. Whether the players are younger and stronger or pitchers are throwing harder or – yes – the ball has been re-wired, the long ball is a bigger part of the game than it’s ever been. And don’t look now, but a pitch clock might be put in place next season to narrow the margin of error even more.

I covered some of Bonds’ 73-homer season and then his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time record and I can tell you it was not even close to the best of times but, rather, the very worst of times. Bonds hated the media with a passion because of slights both real and imagined and he was no fun to be around. I remember asking Steve Kline, a pitcher with the San Francisco Giants when Bonds was pursing Hank Aaron’s career record, if he was going to get the slugger to sign some memorabilia to remember the season. “(Expletive) no, I just want this over with,” was his response. He wanted out like everybody else.

I was also along for the ride in 1998 when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire split-screened their way into the nation’s living rooms with their assault on 61. Both blew by it; McGwire finished with 73 homers and Sosa finished with 68. But McGwire was sullen; retreating to the batting cage at times for batting practice; hiding from the media. Sosa was a laugh riot, which is why so many neutrals were cheering for him.

But as we now know, the game was filthy with steroids. It was juiced, and while some of the attempts to put those numbers into a different context are wholly disingenuous – the fact that commissioner Bud Selig, on whose watch the Bonds market flourished, can say he still views Aaron as the true all-time homer king beggars belief – it is entirely appropriate that we acknowledge the environment in which those numbers occurred.

It’s almost as if Stanton has started to rehabilitate the record book, in the process continuing the rehabilitation of the number 50, following the lead of Bautista – who while not wanting to pass judgment on Bonds vs. Maris and 61 vs. 73, did talk about what Stanton must be experiencing this season.

“You just felt like when you came to the yard every day, it was like you had a mission,” said Bautista, whose career with the Blue Jays is winding down in a power-less fugue of .200 hitting. “You feel locked in and it just continues to happen. You look for pitches in the zone; you keep getting them …. but the thing is, you don’t miss them.”

Stanton himself was asked in mid-August by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel which number he considered to be the one worth aiming for: 61 or 74. His answer was Maris’ 61, but he had enough sense to note that Maris played more games in a season than did previous record holder Babe Ruth and that Ruth played at a time when African-American players were barred from the game. And that’s appropriate. You say it’s 61; I say it’s 73 but I think there’s one thing about which we can all agree: the top six single-season marks after Maris’ 61 are all tainted by steroids and even if Stanton falls short this season, we can once again have this most baseballish of debates without feeling the need for a post-debate shower.

Giancarlo Stanton has brought this most sacred record out of the gutter.

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