Fear and Loathing Atop the All-Time Home Run List, or Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?

Our long national nightmare is finally over. On Tuesday night, Barry Bonds finally hit his 756th home run, topping Hank Aaron’s record, a record that stood for over 33 years as perhaps the most hallowed statistical accomplishment in the annals of sport.

Surprisingly, the world didn’t end.

I missed the home run. Or rather, to borrow the take-home phrase from Office Space, I wouldn’t say I missed it. I just didn’t care enough to watch. Such was my disinterest that after viewing one replay of it on ESPN — where its coverage pre-empted the Bronx Is Burning episode I’d TiVoed — that I didn’t even bother to find out who surrendered it until lunchtime today. The sight of the orgy of celebration in San Francisco was enough to drive me away.

I’d missed #755 too, though at the time I did hear my computer alert me via one of those annoying ESPN update chimes on a page I’d left open, and several minutes later, when my wife paused the movie we were watching, I flipped around to find a replay of that one. I even watched it twice before flipping away.

Were either of those home runs against the Dodgers, I might have sat still and enjoyed Vin Scully wrestling with the contrast between the accomplishment and its reception even as I gave Bonds the double-barreled middle finger from my private box seat. That the San Francisco fans uncritically embraced Bonds was no surprise. That the San Diego fans chose to stay classy felt weak; particularly given the two teams’ rivalry and Bonds’ stated loathing for PetCo Park, I thought they’d have more cojones than to smile brainlessly when prompted for their close-up, but I thought wrong.

The cheerful celebrations in San Diego and San Francisco belied a chase that was no fun at all for most of us, a group that likely includes Bonds. His pursuit brought out the worst in people, from Bud Selig to elected officials to the peers of Bonds and Aaron, from the media to the fans in 29 other ballparks. I’m not happy to concede that at times it’s brought out the worst in me, but I’m not too ashamed to admit that watching the joy drain from the chase filled me with some small degree of satisfaction. As a nation of baseball fans, we deserved what we got, a cynical and likely chemically aided summit of a peak that was thought to be unconquerable.

I’m done gnashing my teeth. The record is what it is, something to be taken in context. Even absent a positive test, the mountain of evidence that Bonds used performance enhancing drugs is enough to convince me that his accomplishment is tainted. We’ll never know the extent to which Bonds was aided, but the fact that his historically unprecedented late-career surge matches up with the well-documented timeline of his alleged usage is enough for me. However, Bonds certainly wasn’t the only player using during this sordid era, and the extent to which the drugs helped him achieve his record will forever remain uncertain. Furthermore, Major League Baseball’s failure to address in any meaningful way the pervasiveness of the steroid problem made them complicit in Bonds’ use. There’s also a growing body of evidence that MLB’s decision to introduce a livelier baseball following the 1994 strike played a part in the astronomical home run totals that followed, but that’s a story for another day.

This much we know: the three players who topped Roger Maris’ long-standing season record of 61 homers have varying degrees of evidence suggesting they had help in the matter, and it’s not unreasonable to eye their latter-day accomplishments with some degree of suspicion so long as that evidence remains. I’m not advocating an asterisk in the record books or the expungement of any stats; if the fabric of baseball history can withstand the variable impacts of the spitballers, scuffers, bat-corkers, sign-stealers, and greenie-poppers — to say nothing of the Black Sox and Pete Rose, rats of an entirely different color — it can withstand this. That doesn’t mean we have to worship the record or the man with the prickly persona who achieved it, nor does it diminish the accomplishments of the men who preceded him in holding that record.

I don’t see eye-to-eye with my BP colleague Joe Sheehan on very much in the Bonds sphere, but a few weeks back, he wrote something that stuck with me, something I resolved to file away for this occasion:

Should Bonds get to 756 home runs, it will mean only that he hit more home runs than anyone else in the game’s history. Doing so doesn’t make him a better person than Hank Aaron—it is irrelevant to that question entirely—nor does his superiority in one statistic necessarily make him a better baseball player. Hank Aaron’s legacy as a player is not diminished one whit by the fact that his name is no longer atop a list of names and numbers. His greatness isn’t defined by a number, and his accomplishments remain just as impressive—overcoming racism in the South in he 1950s, being a player who could do everything on a baseball field, his amazing consistency stretching across two decades of play, and his grace under pressure, surrounded by hatred, as he set the all-time home run record.

Statistics are a record of what happened in baseball games. We make lists, but those lists don’t rank men, they rank their doings. All statistics, however, need to be put into context. That applies when comparing two pitchers who work in disparate run environments, two prospects who play three levels apart, or two Hall of Fame outfielders who find themselves next to each other on a list. Beyond statistical context, however, there’s historical context. The narratives of Ruth and Maris, of Aaron and Bonds, will be written and rewritten, and their places in the history of baseball will be determined not by any statistic, but by the body of their work and their impact on the game.

I’ve yet to read anything in the coverage of the entire home run chase that I agree with the way I agree with that, and so I’ll quit while I’m behind, hopeful that the all-time home run list finds a new man atop it — Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Jason Tyner — by the time I need to explain this record to my children.

If we can agree on one thing, let us agree that the next time around should be more fun.

• • •

My latest Prospectus Hit and Run went up at BP yesterday. With milestone home runs the obvious leading topic, I began with a look back at some old research I did:

I come neither to bury Bonds nor to praise him, but given that the all-time home run list has seen enough shakeups since I wrote about it over three years ago, updating that older work will surely keep me down with OBC (Obligatory Barry Content). Along with Bonds tying Hank Aaron at 755, Sammy Sosa has become the fifth player to top 600, Ken Griffey Jr. and Rafael Palmeiro have cracked the top 10, and Frank Thomas and A-Rod have joined the 500 club.

…Among the top 27 home run hitters of all time — the 22 men in the 500 Club, plus the three active players likely to reach that plateau within the next year, and the two men who came up just shy — Bonds’ ratio of home to road homers is the ninth-lowest. That’s pretty ho-hum stuff. What’s much more interesting is how the chart’s latest interlopers have profited from their home parks. While nobody will ever catch Mel Ott when it comes to home field advantage, Thomas, [Jim] Thome, and Palmeiro have all hit at least 20 percent more homers at home than on the road, with Sosa and Griffey enjoying about a 10 percent advantage, while A-Rod checks in at five percent.

From there, I went on to rerun one of that old piece’s most popular items:

The “Home Doubled” list shows what the leaderboard might have looked like if each of these sluggers had enjoyed the perks of home in every park; we’ve simply doubled the home HR totals (2xHHR). The “Road Doubled” list (or 2xRHRR) puts things on more neutral ground. It ain’t rocket science, but it’s revealing nonetheless:
Player     2xHHR   Player     2xRHR
Aaron 770 Bonds 760
Bonds 750 Aaron 740
Ruth 694 Ruth 734
Mays 670 Mays 650
Ott 646 McGwire 596
Robinson 642 Sosa 574
Sosa 634 Jackson 566
Palmeiro 622 Schmidt 566
Griffey 616 Killebrew 564
Foxx 598 Griffey 562
Thomas 596 Mathews 550
Killebrew 582 Williams 546
Banks 580 Mantle 540
McGwire 570 Robinson 530
Jackson 560 Palmeiro 516
Thome 546 McCovey 514
Mantle 532 Murray 512
Schmidt 530 McGriff 504
McCovey 528 Rodriguez 488
Rodriguez 512 Gehrig 484
Gehrig 502 Ramirez 478
Ramirez 500 Sheffield 472
Williams 496 Foxx 470
Murray 496 Banks 444
Sheffield 484 Thome 436
McGriff 482 Thomas 414
Mathews 474 Ott 376

What stands out most about the Home Doubled list is how much bigger the 600 level might have been if all these sluggers had feasted on home cooking all of the time; a couple more Skydome shots by Thomas and we’d have 10, with Double X Jimmie Foxx just outside the ranks. The second thing to note is that at every rank but one, the Home Doubled total is higher than the Road Doubled one, by an average of 38 homers. The Road Doubled list shows Bonds as having left Aaron in the rearview mirror already, while maintaining a much more exclusive 600-homer level. It’s just further confirmation that the reputations of these sluggers were considerably helped along by favorable conditions at home.

Elsewhere in the piece, I took a look at the best bullpens according to BP’s suite of statistics, and the best and worst pitching staffs as a unit according to our win-expectancy based measures. That kind of stuff isn’t as timely or as controversial as talking about the longball, but I relish the fact that we can now turn our attention to such matters with fewer distractions.

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