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Monthly Archives: June 2015

Deleted Scenes: Anticipating Barry Bonds’ all-time home run record

The following was published on SI.com on May 18, 2007 as part of the site’s short-lived Fungoes blog for which I wrote the Friday “Wild Card” entries. It is one of several of my older articles that was lost in the site’s redesign in June 2014. I’m republishing it here, unaltered, from my original submission, prior to any editing by SI.com’s editors.

Last Tuesday, Barry Bonds hit a solo home run off Tom Glavine for the only Giants’ run in a 4-1 loss to the Mets. That home run put him exactly ten behind Hank Aaron’s career home run record of 755. Since then, Bonds has gone just 2 for 16 (a single and a double), but walked nine times. Still, it’s now all but inevitable that Bonds, who entered the season 21 homers shy of Aaron, will break Aaron’s record this season.

The thought of the surly, unlikable Bonds, who allegedly used illicit means to get into this position, breaking the record the gentlemanly, heroic Aaron claimed in the face of intense racial hatred conjures up a wide variety of unpleasant reactions in nearly every baseball fan. Most fans, consciously or not, still think of Roger Maris’s 61 home runs, not Bonds’s 73, as the single-season record. I don’t have the time, space, or energy to get into the legitimacy of Bonds’s accomplishments right now, but it seems as though the closer Bonds comes to Hank’s 755, the more the mind races for ways to defang, if not outright undermine his accomplishment.

This all got me thinking about the nature of sports records in general. When Maris was bearing down on Babe Ruth’s single-season mark of 60 home runs in 1961, there was a similar recoiling by baseball purists who hadn’t anticipated Ruth’s homer marks ever being broken, and certainly not by a flash-in-the-pan such as Maris. As Maris neared the record, then-Commissioner Ford Frick, who was once Ruth’s ghostwriter, famously declared that Maris, who was chasing Ruth in the first year of expansion for which the season had been extended from 154 games to 162, would have to break Ruth’s record by the Yankees’ 154th game or suffer the cruel indignity of having his mark listed separately as the “162-game record” (no, Virginia, there never was an asterisk, now go tell Billy Crystal). Maris had just 58 homers after 154 games and thus his record, which is now considered the “pure” record, was listed separately until Fricks’ distinction was abandoned in 1991.

History (and Crystal) vilified Frick for that decision, but here’s the thing: statistically speaking, Frick was right. Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season and Maris hit just 58 in a 154-game season, then, given an extra eight games, hit three more. If the point of the single-season home run record was to honor the player who could hit the most home runs in a limited number of opportunities, Frick’s method was the right one. Of course, if that was the point, the record would belong to Bill Lefebvre, who, as a rookie pitcher for the Red Sox in 1938, hit a home run in his only plate appearance of the season. Need a larger sample? What about outfielder Ed Sanicki, who hit three home runs in 15 plate appearances for the Phillies in 1949? Or Ted Williams, who hit 13 homers in 110 plate appearances (8.46 PA/HR) after returning from Korea in 1953. Heck, if Frick was so interested in honoring home run frequency, he should have shifted the record from Ruth’s 60 in 1927 (11.52 PA/HR) to Ruth’s 59 in 1920 (10.42 PA/HR).

Of course, that’s not the point of the single-season home run record. The point isn’t how often, it’s how many. Cumulative records such as the single-season and career home run records are more primal than rate-based records such as batting average or ERA. Quick, who holds the single-season batting average record? Come on, this was the single statistic that was used to compare hitters for nearly all of the twentieth century. When a hitter leads the league in batting average, he’s not called the “batting average leader,” he’s the winner of the batting crown, he leads the league in hitting. Being a .300 hitter is supposed to say something fundamental about a player’s ability, if not their character. Got an answer yet? Is it Hugh Duffy’s .440 in 1894 or Nap Lajoie’s “modern” record of .427 in 1901? What’s the minimum number of plate-appearances required for this record anyway?

See what I mean? That’s not “most,” that’s math. The home run record is most, and the man who hit the most home runs in a single season as of October 1961 was Roger Maris. It didn’t matter that he had more chances than Ruth, the fact was no man had ever hit 61 home runs in a single season of any length, it had never been done. That’s what a record is, something that’s never been done. When Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998, that had never been done, and if say you weren’t as awed by McGwire’s total as he was by himself, you’re probably lying.

Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s single-season record in 2001 and, though by then the baseball world had become jaded by allegations of steroid use and by the onslaught of 60-plus home run seasons (Bonds’ was the fifth in four years and Sammy Sosa would make it six that same year), no one had ever hit 73 home runs in a single baseball season before Bonds did it that year, and no one has done it since. That’s the definition of a record.

I remember watching the 1988 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles when I was a kid and seeing Ben Johnson run 100 meters in 9.79 seconds. No man had ever been recorded traversing that distance in so short a time in the entirety of human history. Three days later, it was revealed that Johnson had tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in light of his positive test, which I understood, but he was also stripped of his world record, which I didn’t. I understood that he had cheated, but the simple fact was that no man had ever been clocked running 100 meters in less time. How could the Olympic Committee pretend that had never happened? It’s one thing to disqualify a boxer from a fight, or a player or team from a game, but a sheer physical accomplishment like that could never be disqualified in my mind.

So sometime in the next month or two, Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career home run, and there will be much pulling of hair, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, and crunching of numbers, but the simple fact will be that no man has ever hit 756 regular season home runs in the major leagues, ever, and that, despite the taint and dishonor that Bonds may bring along with him to that summit, is a record.

 

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MLB Now: B-Net Heroes

My latest appearance on MLB Now was my most enjoyable yet. I got to spend more than two hours having extended and often playful conversations about a variety of baseball topics with Brian Kenny, Sean Casey, and John Smoltz. Unfortunately, most of the country didn’t get to see it. Let me explain.

When the MLB Network airs a mid-week regular season day game, they can’t air a competing broadcast of that game in the home markets of the two teams involved (indeed, they typically just pick up the broadcast of the home team), so they have to air a similarly timed “B game” in those markets. Of course, the two games don’t sync up perfectly, one is bound to end before the other, so coming out of those games, the Network is temporarily split into what they call the A-Net and B-Net, the former broadcasting to most of the country and the latter broadcasting only to the markets of the two teams playing in the A game. The show scheduled to follow the games, which is typically MLB Now, begins after whichever game ends first, but doesn’t go fully national until the end of the other game.

On Wednesday, the A game was the Nationals’ 11-inning win over the Yankees, while the B game was the Blue Jays 7-2 win over the Marlins. The Nats game started at 1pm and lasted three hours and 36 minutes, leaving us less than a half hour for the portion of the show that was seen by most of the country starting around 4:40pm Eastern. The Jays game, however, started at 12:30 and lasted just two hours and eight minutes, meaning we actually went on the air in New York and Washington and the surrounding markets around 2:40. As a result, we did two hours of show that only 26 percent of the MLB Network’s viewing audience saw and two hours and twenty minutes total of what is, on non-game days, only a one-hour show.

On top of that, once the Nationals game reached the bottom of the ninth inning with a tie score, we had to stay on the air (meaning not in commercial) as long as the home team (the Yankees) was at bat, because if the game ended, they needed to come straight out to us. The led to some particularly lengthy discussions which took place after we had already been on the air for an hour and a half. Unsurprisingly, things got loose and a little goofy.

Fortunately, those two hours on the B-Net weren’t resigned to the dustbin. MLB.com has posted three clips from that portion of the show. Our interview with Blue Jays beat reporter Arash Madani, whom our producers collared without warning to help us fill out that extra time, was pretty straight forward, and relatively early in that two-hour stretch, but here’s a six-minute conversation about the shift (watch for my Julio Franco impression as we throw to commercial):

And here, perhaps best capturing the spirit of the show, is a nine-minute conversation about no-hitters stemming from Chris Heston’s no-no the night before in which Smoltz looks back in anger at two near misses from his own career:

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2015 in TV and video

 

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