Editor’s Note: Jeff Pearlman is the author of 10 books including his latest “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson,” which is forthcoming from Mariner Books. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
History was made Wednesday night, when Yankee slugger Aaron Judge hit his 61st home run.
How do I know history was made? Because Major League Baseball has devoted much of the season to reminding us that history was about to be made. It’s been everywhere – all over MLB.com, discussed by the MLB Network talking heads, thrown up and down, left and right by the myriad broadcast booths. History will be made! History should be made! The history that is destined to be made will be amazing history, because, eh, it’s historic.
The words themselves (“history” and “historic”) have served as masks for the reality that – by allowing rampant steroid and human growth hormone usage throughout the 1990s and early 2000s – Major League Baseball ruined and disgraced its own record book, and Judge’s shot merely (yawn) tied the American League home run mark.
And, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from former President Donald Trump, repeating a line pays dividends. The words somehow embed themselves into our psyches until – after enough exposure – we consider the thought both original and irrefutable.
Or, put a different way: Major League Baseball desperately wants you to believe Judge’s 61st homer is historic.
And the unfortunate truth is: it is not. And the reason why is Major League Baseball itself.
When the Yankees’ Roger Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth’s single-season home run mark with 61 dingers in 1961, it was thought by many to be one of the great achievements in sports lore. Yes, there were (as there always are) critics and skeptics: Maris’ 61 homers came over 161 games, while Ruth’s took place in 154. The lord’s year of 1961 was also an expansion season, meaning additional teams with thinned-out pitching staffs.
But, as the decades passed, Maris’ 61 gained in heft. You could be a loyal Yankee fan, a casual Angels fan, an indifferent non-fan – and odds are you were still familiar with 61. That’s how baseball milestones used to work – Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak wasn’t merely baseball history, but American history. The same went for Hank Aaron’s 755 career homers, for Maris’ 61. They mattered. They were important. They stood the test of time.
And then, back in the 1990s, something happened. At the time, I was a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, somewhat bemused but relatively clueless as to why guys who once boasted pretzel-stick physiques promptly reported to spring training looking like a cross pollination of Evander Holyfield and Michelangelo’s David. When, in 1998, Maris’ 61 was surpassed by not one, but two too-good-to-be-true “stars,” Mark McGwire (who hit 70 home runs) and Sammy Sosa (a more modest 66), a nation rose and celebrated and deemed the men gifts from the gods. My own publication named McGwire and Sosa co-Sportsmen of the Year, and plastered their hulking figures atop the magazine cover, clad in togas.
Before long, as more and more players underwent dramatic bodily transformations, talk turned to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) like steroids and human growth hormone. A backup catcher would gripe to a reporter (off the record) about the uneven playing field. A blatant juicer would explain away his muscular additions by citing “a juice diet” (wink, wink) or “these amazing date shakes my mom makes.”
Inside press boxes, we’d discuss how what unfolded before us was increasingly impossible to believe. Baltimore’s Brady Anderson, who previously had a career-high season home run total of 21, raised eyebrows (and still-unanswered questions) when he hit 50. What occurred to make Sosa’s body more and more like champion bodybuilder Lee Haney? Why does that 35-year-old second baseman have acne coating his back?
When, in 2001, San Francisco’s Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s record with 73 homers, we all knew it was nonsense. Not some of us – all of us. Here was a man, at age 36, with muscles growing atop muscles and a skull size that – as I reported in my Bonds biography, “Love Me Hate Me” – had actually increased in recent years (this is physically impossible without the help of HGH). I was in San Francisco the night Bonds passed McGwire, and it was…stupid. Just so damn stupid. The local fans stood and cheered, but it felt flat and meaningless and a bit embarrassing. Like spotting a magician’s fake thumb.
All the while, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association did … nothing. Home runs were great business, so team owners shrugged off PED suspicions while the union made clear it would refuse to have its players be tested in any sort of methodical, impactful manner. The result was temporary long ball excitement, followed by the quiet-yet-crushing realization (by most involved in the game) that the record book had been rendered meaningless. Trivia: How many career home runs did Bonds hit? (I wrote his biography and have no idea).
Finally, in 2002, the league and union agreed to survey testing, followed by urine testing for PED in 2004, banned amphetamine testing in 2006 and blood testing for HGH in 2012. It’s far from perfect, but it’s an improvement. “We constantly improve that (testing) program,” Rob Manfred, the Major League commissioner, said in 2016. “The science gets better. And it is true that the windows of detection on certain substances have been lengthened – windows of detection, meaning the periods of time in which you can detect a substance in somebody’s body have been improved. It’s just science getting better.”
With Wednesday’s blast in Toronto, Judge and Maris are tied for the seventh most single-season home runs of all time – behind Bonds, two big McGwire years and three (yes, three) preposterous long-ball assaults from Sosa. Which is why, when I heard Michael Kay, the Yankees’ fantastic announcer, celebrate Judge’s moment with, “He’s been chasing history! And now he makes it!” well, I felt nothing but sadness.
On the one hand, the 30-year-old slugger has had a season for the ages – he’s all but locked up the AL MVP award, and at this moment is in line to become the Yankees’ first triple crown winner since Mickey Mantle in 1956.
This should be an historic time for baseball.
This should be an historic time for Aaron Judge.
Instead, greed destroyed baseball – and took its history with it.
An earlier version of this op-ed included the wrong number of home runs for Mark McGwire. He hit 70 home runs in 1998.