I would never think to compare myself to Clayton Kershaw, but thematically I appreciate the fact that my first post-SI piece is about a key player returning to action. This is the first of what I hope will be many pieces for USA Today, and there will be more to come from me elsewhere next week. Stay tuned . . .
Author Archives: Cliff Corcoran
Wednesday marked my final day at SI.com after nearly ten years covering baseball for the site. My dismissal was part of a larger wave of layoffs and was, I am told, purely a financial decision made above the level of my baseball editors, who fought, unsuccessfully, to keep me. I am obviously disappointed by this development, but I leave SI on good terms and with an appreciation for the opportunity I was given there over the last decade. With that in mind, and because I couldn’t fit them all into a tweet, I wanted to thank the current and former SI staffers who made my success at the site possible, as well as my good friend Alex Belth for helping to open the door in the first place. Among those I wanted to mention by name are Jacob Luft for giving me my initial opportunities at the site. Paul Fichtenbaum and Larry Burke for being early supporters higher up the chain of command. Gennaro Filice for being the first baseball editor to use me regularly throughout the regular season outside of the Fungoes blog. Stephen Cannella and Emma Span for giving me opportunities to contribute to the magazine. Mike Harris and the many night and weekend editors and producers, whom I don’t dare try to name here for fear of leaving someone out. Jon Tayler, a rising star who emerged from that group to become a daily collaborator as the primary MLB producer. Jay Jaffe, an old friend with whom it was a pleasure to collaborate on the site over the last five years. Most of all, thanks to Ted Keith, who was my editor for eight of the last nine seasons, my most vocal advocate at the company, and was always extremely understanding and supportive of the need to put health and family ahead of work.
I wish Ted, Jon and Jay the best as they attempt to move forward with the site despite my departure and Jay’s need to attend to Emma and their newborn baby. As for me, I don’t expect to be inactive for long. Keep an eye on my twitter feed, as well as here, to find out where you can read me next, and thanks to all of those who have read me in the past and will continue to seek out my work in the future.
My first opportunity to break out of the Fungoes box with SI.com came with the news of Phil Rizzuto’s death on August 14, 2007. Though I had already been writing the Wild Card entry in the Fungoes blog for SI for five months at that point, I still think of this as my first proper SI.com piece, not because of the quality of the content, but because it was the first time my work for the site appeared on the standard SI.com template (see image below for a reminder of what the site looked like back then) and was rewarded with a proper freelance fee (we were paid for Fungoes, of course, but a relative pittance). Looking back at it now, it’s not a particularly strong piece, but it established my ability to provide quality work quickly on deadline in reaction to breaking news and likely did more to create my subsequent opportunities at SI.com than the previous four and a half months of Fungoes pieces combined. The piece has since vanished from the interwebs along with most of my other SI pieces from that year, but I’m republishing it below exactly as it appeared on SI.com in August 2007, warts and all.
By Cliff Corcoran, Special to SI.com
“Would you accept reincarnation if you knew you would come back as Phil Rizzuto of the Money Store?”
–The Book of Stupid Questions, 1988
Both then and now, I find the question, which was posed in one of those trendy party question books from the ’80s, impossibly offensive. Not only does it take an unprovoked shot at one of my all-time favorite people I’ve never met, it also betrays such a complete lack of understanding of who Phil Rizzuto was and of the life he led.
Perhaps it’s inappropriate to lead off this tribute to the memory of Rizzuto with such an insult, but Rizzuto lived his life in defiance of such insults, and lived a life any one of us would be fortunate to relive. Rizzuto was famously insulted by Casey Stengel when he tried out for Stengel’s Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-’30s (“go get a shoeshine box,” said Casey). A decade and a half later Rizzuto would be the starting shortstop on Stengel’s five consecutive World Series-winning Yankee teams, earning the 1950 AL MVP along the way.
Rizzuto was famously insulted by the Yankees organization in 1956 when George Weiss forced him into retirement by making Rizzuto select himself as the player to be removed from the roster to make room for Enos Slaughter. Weiss was slaughtered in the press for the move and the team’s broadcast sponsor insisted that Rizzuto be hired to broadcast the team’s games the following season. Rizzuto was still in the same job 39 years later when the team forced him to call a game rather than attend Mickey Mantle’s funeral. Rizzuto, enraged and embarrassed, quit mid-game, but public outcry brought him back for a 40th and final season.
My voice was one of those calling Rizzuto back. The Scooter may have had more to do with my becoming a baseball fan than anyone else. Though my family is filled with Yankees fans dating back to the days of Babe Ruth, I had no older sibling to turn me on to baseball and neither of my parents was particularly interested in professional sports when I was growing up. Instead it was Rizzuto, with his enthusiasm, good humor and wildly entertaining and unpredictable asides (which were a good match for the often tragicomic play of the mid-’80s Yankees), who sold me on the joys of the game and its history despite the poor quality of the team I was watching.
Even then I was aware of the slights Rizzuto had endured. In 1984 Pee-Wee Reese was selected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, leaving Rizzuto on the outside looking in at his former crosstown rival. A decade later Rizzuto was finally inducted as well, only to have Bill James devote a large portion of his book The Politics of Glory to bemoaning Rizzuto’s selection. Though James ends his book by stating clearly that Rizzuto was “certainly not the worst player to stand on that podium,” many glossed over that line and dubbed Rizzuto precisely that (including the charming fellow who sponsors Rizzuto’s page on basebaballreference.com). It’s true that Rizzuto was inducted ahead of many far more deserving players, many of whom continue to await their day in Cooperstown, and that his induction has as much to do with a well-stocked veterans committee, led by Ted Williams (who often said that Rizzuto was the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s). It’s also true that Rizzuto is far from the worst player in the Hall. Just look at the list of old cronies Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry helped through the door via the Veterans Committee in the early 1970s. The fact remains that, whereas Terry and Frisch were lining up former teammates, Rizzuto was inducted because the greats of the game, Williams and Ty Cobb among them, thought he deserved to be listed as one of their equals.
Unlike Williams or Cobb, Rizzuto was a hard man not to like. Though he held a grudge against Stengel’s shoeshine box comment throughout his life, and retired from broadcasting over Mantle funeral incident, I’ve never seen nor heard an unflattering word about the man. Whether you marveled at his wizardry in the field as a fan, cursed his pesky presence in the batters box or on the bases, laughed with him or at him while listening to a Yankees broadcast, or only knew him as the (reportedly unwittingly) double-entendre-spouting play-by-play announcer in the middle of Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, he brought good spirit to and evoked admiration from all those whose lives were touched by his.
It wasn’t such a bad thing to be Phil Rizzuto, Hall of Famer, seven-time World Series champ, MVP, All-Star, a man who spent a half-century in baseball interrupted only by his naval service during World War II. It’s no wonder Rizzuto endured all of those slights with such good humor. Beyond his accomplishments on the field and in the booth, Rizzuto enjoyed more than 60 years of marriage to his beautiful bride Cora (who was a frequent character in his broadcast banter), and is survived by three children and two grandchildren. We should all be so lucky to live the life Phil Rizzuto lived, but we are already very fortunate that he lived it. Rest in peace, Scooter.
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
The first thing I ever did for SI.com was write the Friday entry for “Fungoes,” the site’s first attempt at a baseball blog. After Ben Reiter, Albert Chen, Alex Belth and Jon Weisman tackled the six divisions over the first four days of the week, I would write a “Wild Card” entry on any topic of my (and my editor’s) chosing on Friday. My very first Fungoes entry, on April 6, 2007, concerned the Diamondbacks’ brand new uniforms and color scheme. With Arizona having replaced that uniform set on Thursday night, this seemed like as good a time as any to add this to the pieces I’ve salvaged from my personal archives. As with the other articles that were lost in the site’s redesign in June 2014, this is the version I submitted, presented here unaltered and prior to any editing by SI.com’s editors. The many embedded links (blantantly imitating the style of Paul Lukas’s Uni-Watch, but with his blessing) are from the original, as well, so my apologies for the many that now lead to dead ends and since-deleted pages.
If Jerry Seinfeld’s right that we baseball fans really just root for laundry, then it only seems appropriate that, after all of the words spilled on new faces in new places (or rather, old faces in new laundry), we spill a few on the laundry itself. This year, the Diamondbacks and Reds have entirely new looks. New designs were sorely needed in both cases, though both could have done better than what they ultimately came up with. The Reds became victims of the dreaded black drop shadow in 1999 and, though they are one of the few teams with some historical claim to black as a team color, the Reds always looked better when they either stuck exclusively to red and white, or used navy instead of black. Their new duds do greatly reduce the amount of black in their color scheme, but that blasted drop shadow is still there.
The Diamondbacks were the clear choice for worst uniform in the majors from the moment they entered the league in 1998 (so much for Buck Showalter’s reputation as a traditionalist, even a dirt path to the pitchers mound couldn’t make up for the Snakes’ seemingly endless combinations of purple, teal, gold, and black). They’ve finally toned things down, but now they just look like the Astros. Despite the lack of creativity in the D-backs’ new design (see also the Washington Nationals), their wholesale color scheme change is actually rather historic.
Many teams have added or deleted third or even fourth colors (such as the Mets, Royals, Rangers, and Reds flirtation with black drop shadows in recent years). Some have completely inverted the significance of their main two colors (see the Angels and Rangers, who went from predominantly blue with red highlights to the reverse, and, in the case of the Rangers, back again). Others have made gradual changes to their color schemes, such as the Padres switching from yellow and brown, to yellow, orange, and brown, to just orange and brown, to orange and blue, to blue and “sand” over the course of a quarter century. Still others have made what amount to changes in tint, the most extreme being the Astros, whose colors had always been based in orange and navy, but who switched to rust and black in 2000. Similarly the White Sox have always used some combination of navy, black and red, though at different times they’ve reduced their color scheme to just one of the three, the most striking recent examples being their early ‘70s duds, the home versions of which looked exactly like their current home unis but whereas the current versions are entirely black and white, the 1971 to 1975 versions were entirely red and white.
What the Diamondbacks have done, however, is to change their entire color scheme in the course of a single winter, something that has only happened twice before in modern major league history. The first time was in 1948 when the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had always worn some combination of blue and red, adopted the colors of the Pittsburgh city flag, the black and gold since worn by the city’s other two major sports franchises, the NFL’s Steelers and NHL’s Penguins. The second came in the wake of Charlie O. Finley’s 1961 purchase of the Kansas City Athletics. The Athletics too had worn only shades of blue with occasional use of red throughout their history in Philadelphia and Kansas City, but in their third year under Finley they took the field in colors Finely dubbed “kelly green,” “Fort Knox gold,” and “wedding gown white.” Mickey Mantle said the A’s, “should have come out of the dugout on tippy-toes, holding hands and singing.” The Mick’s homophobia aside, that sort of strong reaction was exactly what Finely was going for. His A’s didn’t just use their green and gold on stripes and text, they wore bright yellow vests and pants with green hats, green undersleeves, and green stirrups. Remember, this was back when uniforms were wool and the last active player to sport a moustache during the regular season was Frenchy Bordagaray in 1936. (Actually, there was a third instance, but the Brooklyn Dodgers flirtation with green lasted just one season before they returned to their traditional Dodger blue, whereas the other two changes persist to this day, even despite such horrors as this).
What exactly the Diamonbacks are trying to accomplish with their new colors is more difficult to discern. The team’s official press release stated that the new colors were “chosen to better represent the personality and beauty of Arizona.” I get that. The connection between their new shade of red and the rocks in Sedona is obvious. But when the Pirates and A’s made their palette changes, they distinguished themselves in the process. No other major league team before or since has worn Finley’s green and gold or Pittsburgh’s yellow and black. The Diamondbacks, however, look almost exactly like the Astros, who have been wearing “brick red” and black since 2000, supposedly in tribute to the importance of railroads in Houston’s history (which only makes sense for a team first named after a gun and then for the city’s connection to the space program). Then again, anything that will prevent things like this from happening has got to be considered an improvement. It’s just troubling that something so historic could seem so uninspired.
- Game of the Week: Braves 3, Phillies 2, 11 innings. A seven-inning pitchers duel between veteran Tim Hudson and wunderkind Cole Hamels erased by a Braves comeback on a game-tying, ninth-inning two-run home run by Brian McCann and an eleventh-inning game winner by Scott Thorman.
- Player of the Week: Miguel Cabrera – 7 for 10 with 5 walks, 2 doubles, 2 homers, 6 RBIs and 5 runs scored. Cabrera made just three outs in fifteen plate appearances over three games against the Nationals.
- Performance of the Week: Felix Hernandez vs. Oakland, Tuesday April 3 – 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 K
The following are a selection of links to articles I’ve written that look back at baseball history and the lives of the men who participated in it. This is an active post, the list below is by no means complete, and links may be added as I remember/stumble upon other such pieces. Last updated April 19, 2015.
99 Facts About Babe Ruth (7/11/13)
The Holy Trinity: 1904 (9/3/05)
The Holy Trinity: 1949 (10/1/05)
Killebrew ahead of his time (5/17/11)
Best waiver trades of wild card era (8/3/10)
I believe in curses (10/15/03)
Hideki Matsui proved he was one of a kind (12/27/12)
Mariano Rivera: G.O.A.T. (1/13/11)
Watch: Derek Jeter’s 10 greatest moments (2/12/14)
Gallery: Derek Jeter’s Greatest Hits (9/10/11)
Gallery: Top 10 MLB Games of 2000s (Dec. 2009)
Best moments of the 2012 season (12/25/12)
Gallery: Top 10 New York Mets of all time (11/17/14)
Todd Helton’s Hall of Fame Case (2/26/13)
Jim Thome’s numbers great in any era (8/16/11)
The following was published on SI.com on November 14, 2010 under the headline “NL rookie class unusually deep, talented.” 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. Italicized sections below are from the original text.
In writing my Awards Watch column this season, I often found myself struggling to find five, or even three worthy players to round out my list of American League Rookie of the Year candidates. That stood in stark contrast to the crop of rookies in the National League, which not only provided stiff competition for my top five spots, but was large and diverse enough that one could assemble a strong 25-man roster from this year’s National League rookies alone. With the Rookie of the Year awards due to be announced on Monday, that got me thinking. What would that 25-man roster of NL rookies look like and, if assembled, how well could it have done in this year’s standings?
To answer that question, I have to set out some ground rules. First, I’m looking for a team that could play a full season, not an All-Star game. Thus, I’ll need my position players to total 162 games played at each position, my starting pitchers to total 162 games started, and my bullpen to add enough relief innings to combine with my starters to give me a total of 1,458 innings on the season (nine innings times 162 games). In order to reach those totals, I’ll likely have to expand my roster beyond 25 men, but no team uses just 25 men over the course of an entire season, so this remains within the realm of reality.
With regard to position, I will give myself a bit of flexibility. For example, though Buster Posey started 30 games at first base this year, I will count all of his games toward my catchers, and if an outfielder has experience in a pasture other than his usual one, or an infielder has experience at a relatable position (a third baseman who has played first, a shortstop who has played second or third, etc.), I’ll give myself permission to use that player to fill in the necessary games at those positions as needed. I will not use starting pitchers in my bullpen unless they have actually thrown those innings in relief, and vice versa for relievers starting. However, if a pitcher has both started and relieved this season, if I include him his starts will count toward my rotation and his relief innings will count toward my bullpen. I won’t attempt to isolate his performance in either role.
With that established, I need a total-production metric to allow me to measure the performance of my roster relative to an existing standard. Joe Posnanski examined some of the issues with the two different versions of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) earlier this season. I share his belief that FanGraphs’ WAR weighs defense more heavily, which I find problematic given how inexact even advanced fielding metrics are relative to our ability to parse out value from pitching and hitting. I also find FanGraphs’ WAR problematic because it uses Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) for its defensive component, but UZR doesn’t rate catchers and doesn’t take into account several key aspects of paying first base. Baseball-Reference’s WAR uses Total Zone Runs for its defensive component, which at minimum has the advantage over UZR of rating catchers and seems to be more gently applied to the overall WAR stat. Baseball Prospectus’s VORP is an offense-only statistic, but it’s counterpart WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player, which pre-dates WAR by roughly a decade) not only includes fielding, but its fielding component, Fielding Runs Above Average, was overhauled last year to employ play-by-play data, giving new life an old favorite. I’ll stick with the dame I came in with and use WARP.
For players with more than the required amount of games played, I will use a pro-rated portion of their total WARP. Those partial-season statistics are in italics below.
Here, then, is my 2010 National League All-Rookie team:
1B – Ike Davis, Marlins (147 G, 3.1 WARP)
2B – Neil Walker, Pirates (110 G, 2.1 WARP)
SS – Starlin Castro, Cubs (125 G, 2.4 WARP)
3B – Chris Johnson, Astros (92 G, 1.96 WARP)
C – Buster Posey, Giants (108 G, 4.4 WARP)
RF – Jason Heyward, Braves (142 G, 5.1 WARP)
CF – Jose Tabata, Pirates (102 G, 2.7 WARP)
LF – Mike Stanton, Marlins (100 G, 2.5 WARP)
1B – Gaby Sanchez, Marlins (15 G, 0.21 WARP)
SS/2B – Ian Desmond, Nationals (89 G, 1.10 WARP)
3B – David Freese, Cardinals (70 G, 2.2 WARP)
LF – Logan Morrison, Marlins (62 G, 1.5 WARP)
CF – Lorenzo Cain, Brewers (43 G, 1.1 WARP)
RF/CF – Chris Heisey, Reds (37 G, 0.42 WARP)
C – Josh Thole, Mets (54 G, 1.55 WARP)
Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals (28 GS, 4.0 WARP)
Jhoulys Chacin, RHP, Rockies (21 GS, 2.8 WARP*)
Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants (18 GS, 2.9 WARP)
Barry Enright, RHP, Diamondbacks (17 GS, 2.6 WARP)
Dan Hudson, LHP, Diamondbacks (11 GS, 3.6 WARP)
Travis Wood, LHP, Reds (17 GS, 1.7 WARP)
Alejandro Sanabia, RHP, Marlins (12 GS, 1.4 WARP*)
Casey Coleman, RHP, Cubs (8 GS, 1.2 WARP*)
Dillon Gee, RHP, Mets (5 GS, 1.2 WARP)
John Axford, CL, Brewers (58 IP, 4.1 WARP)
Jonny Venters, LHP, Braves (83 IP, 2.2 WARP)
Wilton Lopez, RHP, Astros (67 IP, 2.3 WARP)
Ryan Webb, RHP, Padres (59 IP, 1.3 WARP)
Drew Storen, RHP, Nationals (55, 1.5 WARP)
Ernesto Frieri, RHP, Padres (31 2/3 IP, 0.9 WARP)
Kenley Jansen, RHP, Dodgers (27 IP, 1.4 WARP)
Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (20 2/3 IP, 1.7 WARP)
Michael Dunn, LHP, Braves (11 1/2 IP, 0.48 WARP)
Hisanori Takahashi, LHP, Mets (12 GS, 122 IP, 2.7 WARP*)
Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals (12 GS, 1.6 WARP)
*WARP includes relief innings, which are factored into overall team innings
That’s 35 players, fewer than any of the 30 major league teams used during the 2010 season (the Rays came closest, using just 37 men, 35 of whom appeared in at least ten games). Though I have a nice mix of righties and lefties on my pitching staff, the offense is heavily right-handed. Only Heyward, Davis, and bench players Morrison and Thole bat lefty, while Walker is the only switch-hitter. Not that I mind. Want a batting order? How’s this:
R – Jose Tabata (.299/.346/.400, 19 SB)
R – Starlin Castro (.300/.347/.408, 10 SB)
L – Jason Heyward (.277/.393/.456, 18 HR)
R – Buster Posey (.305/.357/.505, 18 HR)
L – Ike Davis (.264/.351/.440, 19 HR)
R – Mike Stanton (.259/.326/.507, 22 HR)
R – Chris Johnson (.308/.337/.481, 11 HR)
S – Neil Walker (.296/.349/.462, 12 HR)
WARP, again, is Wins Above Replacement Player. Replacement level is defined as the production that can be expected from a freely available player, be it a non-prospect promoted from Triple-A or a player placed on waivers or released by another team. A replacement level team is thus, essentially, the worst major league team possible. The worst major league team in the modern era was the 1916 Philadelphia A’s, who had a .235 “winning” percentage. That translates to 38 wins over a 162-game schedule. According to Baseball Prospectus’s definition of WARP, a team that is replacement level across the board would likely win no more than 25 games. I can thus use that 25 wins as the starting point for my team, adding the total WARP from my roster above to figure out just how many games this team might have won.
Adding up the 35 WARP totals above, I find my NL All-Rookie team was 73.92 wins above replacement in 2010. If you add those 74 wins to the 25-win baseline you’ll find the team above, comprised exclusively of National League rookies, would have won 99 games, more than any other team in baseball in 2010.
So how deep was the 2010 National League rookie class? So deep you could not only assemble an entire 25-man roster (with ten alternates) of NL rookies, but future stars such as Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown, Reds righty Mike Leake, and Mets hurlers Jenrry Mejia and Jonathon Niese didn’t even make the team, nor did hot-hitting rookies Tyler Colvin of the Cubs or Jon Jay of the Cardinals (all had inferior WARP-per-game rates to the players listed in their positions above). It was so deep that it could absorb Stephen Strasburg’s elbow injury and still have a deep and effective rotation. So deep that the resulting roster would have had the best record in the major leagues in 2010, won any division in the game, and had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That deep.
Thanks to Baseball Prospectus’s Colin Wyers for filling me in on the finer points and current formulation of WARP.
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.