“Giancarlo!” one fan hollered. “I’m rooting for you! Sixty-two! Sixty-two, man! You got it!”
In baseball, certain numbers evoke certain feelings. Sixty-two is one of those, which is complicated. Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record is not the 61 Roger Maris blasted in 1961. It is the 73 home runs Barry Bonds hit in 2001, one of those seasons when Bonds, through superhuman skill and inhuman chemistry, rearranged the game’s limits.
Stanton has forced the sport, for perhaps the first time in the current era, to grapple with the difference in those numbers. Stanton entered Monday night having launched an are-you-sure-that’s-not-a-typo? 17 homers in 25 August games, pushing his season total 50 with more than a month remaining.
The tear has positioned Stanton as the first slugger to potentially challenge Maris’s total since 2006, when Ryan Howard had 56 with 21 games remaining but petered out to finish with 58. Stanton, then, may have the best chance to slam 62 homers since baseball’s wholesale attempts to rid the sport of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. He is starting to understand what that means, and the glare that comes with it.
“I’m not going through that B.S. runaround again, like I had to last time,” Stanton said Monday, when asked about the record.
In mid-August, a SportsCenter anchor asked him on live television what number he viewed as a milestone for the season, and he said 62. The next day, reporters approached him and asked him to clarify. He said he believed 73 home runs was tainted as a record “considering some things” and that 61 had “been the printed number” for years.
Monday afternoon, after his initial reticence, Stanton elaborated.
“They both had an advantage either way,” Stanton said. “Sixty-one was against one race. Seventy-three, 70, there could be controversy around that. They both had different advantages, in my view. So the record is the record. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.”
Stanton’s history is off — Babe Ruth hit 60 homers at a time when only whites were permitted, but Maris set his record after integration. His larger point remains valid. The game changes through eras, and comparing accomplishments will always be fraught. Maris didn’t face Asian pitchers or specialized relievers or the volume of great Latin players in the game today.
The stain of steroid use heightens the noise, particularly because steroid use is a choice that separated some players from others. But performance-enhancing drugs permeated the era — how many home runs did Bonds hit against pitchers who had gained their own advantage?
Sixteen years from now, those in the sport may look upon Stanton’s 2017 home run total and look askance at the allegedly juiced baseballs he walloped. That would be a different kind of asterisk than cheating peers by using performance-enhancing drugs, but it may be an asterisk all the same.
In a sign of how complex the whole matter is, Stanton at once admits the blemish on Bonds’s record while receiving counsel from him. Bonds served as Miami’s hitting coach last season, and Stanton still exchanges text messages with him. Recently, Bonds has offered tips about to remain prepared as opponents pitch around him.
“Barry’s been huge for me,” Stanton said. “We talk all the time. He’s guided me along this year as well, helping me with questions [about the home run record], but on the field, too. He’s telling me, ‘Stay the course. Get ready to go every day.’ ”
A few lockers down, Ichiro, considered the question with the wisdom of a 43-year-old with 17 years in the majors, many of them during the so-called Selig Era. The topic sparks endless discussion, but no definitive answer.
“A lot of people have different opinions,” Ichiro said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to say, ‘This is it,’ because there are so many opinions out there. This is how it’s going to be. That’s the reality of the situation.”
Jayson Werth’s grandfather, Dick Schofield, played with Maris. As a small child, Werth recalled, Werth once attended Thanksgiving dinner at Maris’s home. He understands how the nature of the record perpetuates the pull of 62, no matter how 73 may be viewed. Bonds has held the record, amid controversy, for 16 years. Mark McGwire held it with 70 for three years. Maris’s 61 stood for 37 years. The majority of fans, and even a large portion of today’s players, grew up with 61 homers ingrained as the standard.
“When you look over the course of baseball history, 61 was the number for a long time,” Werth said. “Until those guys did what they did, it wasn’t even fathomable, really. I kind of came up in that era. I played against Barry Bonds. I played against Sammy Sosa. I’ve seen what these guys can do, and I’ll tell you: They’re some of the most special, talented athletes that have ever played this game. I would not take anything away from those guys. But I do think that number — 61 — is significant and is quite a feat, regardless of what anyone else has done.”
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker managed Bonds in 2001, and he maintains the proper record is 73. Those on Baker’s side hold the debate’s simplest and most powerful cudgel: It happened. Seventh-three times in 2001, Bonds hit a pitched ball over a fence, and whatever discomfort some feel about it now cannot reverse the past.
“Isn’t 73 the record?” Baker said. “I was there when he hit 73. So that’s the record to me. Boy, that was a lot of home runs.”
Baker, at least, took a side. Don Mattingly, Stanton’s manager and a player of significance himself, declined to offer an opinion.
“Then we’re into guessing and confusing,” Mattingly said. “The record is — I don’t even know what the record is. Whatever the record is, the record is. Everyone else can figure out which one they think is legit or not.”
Consider, for a moment, a borderline Hall of Famer, one of the great hitters of the 1980s, professing with a straight face ignorance of the record for homers in a season. Bonds may hold the official record, but 73 does not resonate like 61.
In this way, the reckoning of the Selig Era continues to haunt the sport. No matter how effective testing becomes, no matter how close the league comes to eradicating PEDs, once-hallowed numbers will engender debate and uncertainty. Until a presumably clean slugger challenges 73, something not even Stanton will approach this season, homer totals into the 60s will spark both awe and a measure of awkwardness.
There is still plenty of room for awe. Stanton is a player like few others, venturing into territory few have been, no matter the number where he lands.
“I remember when I was in elementary school,” Ichrio said. “When Nintendo came out, there was a baseball game. At first, there was only Japanese teams. But then the new edition came out with the major league team. And they would only hit home runs. That’s what we’re witnessing now, is that game. He’s like a Nintendo game.”