Thursday, December 7

Column: Barry Bonds is the real home run record holder — and nothing can change that until someone breaks it

In 2001, 37-year-old Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, beating Mark McGwire’s single-season record of 70 set three years earlier. You probably remember it happened, whether you watched it or not.

Even if you don’t have a relationship to baseball, it’s one of those facts many people know. Bonds is the single-season home run record holder. And he’s also the career home run record holder with 762. Again, these are facts.

I find it interesting that baseball fans, when something doesn’t go their way, think the answer is to erase history: “Strike it from the record books!”

But in the case of Bonds, you can’t erase it or ignore it. It’s a major-league record and it will be there forever. Even if it ever is broken, it still will be there at No. 2. A reminder of what some seem to consider the worst scandal of modern baseball — doping.

In some circles, it’s common to refer to baseball or going to baseball games as church. For those of us who love the sport, it can be a religious experience. It’s a place we go to share in the reverence for the game.

But the one thing we forget when we compare baseball to church is that at church, we are allowed to be imperfect. Sinners, not saints. Religion is based on our own imperfection. So in other things we hold sacred, we must remember they also are imperfect.

The “steroid era” remains one of Major League Baseball’s greatest sins. It’s widely believed that from the 1980s through the late 2000s, many players were using various performance-enhancing drugs. The era saw an increase in offensive output and unprecedented home run totals. Bonds, McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa are just some of the power hitters whose careers have been called into question because of PEDs.

Barry Bonds connects for his 600th career home run on Aug. 9  2002.

And while you’re absolutely allowed to disagree with their usage, it’s important to point out that the average fan doesn’t actually know what PEDs do. MLB fed us a narrative after the fact that led us to believe steroid use turned mere mortals into gods. PEDs aren’t some magic pill for muscles. Athletes take them to work harder and recover faster. Have you ever considered that with such widespread use, even more players should’ve seen record-breaking numbers?

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I must be clear here: I’m not condoning the use of steroids. I’m simply positing that its impact on baseball history is a lot more complicated than simply erasing records.

At no point in recorded history has MLB vacated a World Series or removed a record. Remember when people were clamoring for the Houston Astros to have their 2017 World Series title taken away? That’s not what MLB does.

Vacating titles and awards happens in the NCAA. After the ceremonies and parades, does taking it away have any significance? We all remember what happened. Reggie Bush won the Heisman, right? Or didn’t he?

Part of documenting history means it won’t always be good, but it can’t just be crossed out or affixed with an asterisk because we don’t like it.

So instead of arguing endlessly about “clean records,” let’s just focus on the greatness of what Aaron Judge has done. In a year when fans have been calling for the New York Yankees to sign him to a lucrative extension, Judge is having an incredible season, breaking Roger Maris’ American League home run record Tuesday night with his 62nd.

Along with Los Angeles Angels dual threat Shohei Ohtani, Judge is a front-runner for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. He also leads the AL in RBIs and is second in the batting race, flirting with a Triple Crown.

Judge put the focus on a sport that had lost the attention of a large part of a generation. The entire sports world has been tuned in — even if only halfway — to potentially witness history.

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We want to cling to the idea that our heroes and the sports we love should be without fault, but that’s just not the case.

The real record is 73.

Bonds and others will have to live with their decisions, and to a certain degree so will the rest of us. History, and the record books, will continue to tell the story.

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