Just in time to hit free agency this off-season, Aaron Judge is having the best year of his career. He turned down an eight-year, $230 million extension from the Yankees in April, a move that seemed foolish at the time and now looks like a masterstroke. Since then, Judge has become one of those larger-than-life baseball figures whose name transcends the sport. He has always been popular, mind you: It’s not every baseball player who gets a Supreme Court justice to cheer him on from center-field seats.
But now Judge is chasing history. Heading into Wednesday, he has hit 46 home runs, putting him on pace for 64 by the end of the season. This would make him the first player to reach 60 homers in more than 20 years, and would set the all-time Yankees and American League record, outpacing Roger Maris’s 61 back in 1961. As anyone with a passing interest in baseball knows, that Maris mark was for decades the most sacred record in the sport. Then Mark McGwire (and Sammy Sosa) broke it in 1998, and Barry Bonds surpassed everyone with an unfathomable 73, in 2001.
If you’ve paid any attention to sports discourse over the past 20 years, you will also know that the names Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa no longer stand for home-run power — not anymore. Now they stand for steroids. Which means that to most people, they stand for cheating.
That’s why for some, a narrative has begun to coalesce around Judge’s epic season: This is for the real record. Because Bonds’s, McGwire’s, and Sosa’s marks are seen as “tainted,” the notion has arisen that if Judge is able to pass Maris’s team and AL mark, he should be the true, bona fide Home Run King.
You could make a plausible argument that Judge is having the best home-run-hitting season of all time. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds all accomplished their feats during an age of unprecedented home-run and scoring rates. And in 2022, nearly every pitcher in the game is throwing 95 mph cutters with late movement, and ultra-specialized relievers mean your final at-bat of the night is usually against some 23-year-old kid who throws 102. Pitching right now is as good as it has ever been. The leaguewide batting average this year is .243, the lowest since 1968, a.k.a. the “Year of the Pitcher” — making Judge’s mammoth blasts all the more impressive. If Bonds and company had to face the caliber of pitchers standard in today’s game, would they have broken Maris’s record? I doubt it.
The thing is, though: They did. The record is not 61: It is 73. There is no footnote in the record book reading, “Sure, Barry Bonds is technically the man to beat, but a lot of people didn’t like him and he probably took cow tranquilizers and had a huge head, so not really.” If Judge doesn’t get to 73, he doesn’t get the record. It’s pretty cut-and-dried.
Those who want to give Judge the record aren’t particularly interested in honoring him. They’re mostly interested in dishonoring Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, because they think those guys are irredeemable cheaters. Few baseball narratives have lasted longer than the notion that players who tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs — or even people who very likely used but never tested positive, like, uh, Bonds and McGwire and Sosa — should go down in history as monsters. As great as those three players were (and Bonds remains the greatest baseball player I’ve ever seen), the very mention of them will still bring a sneer to the face of your average boomer fan. The same goes for anyone else implicated: Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and so on. Nothing — not assault, not illegal gambling — makes many fans angrier than PED usage, real or imagined.
The dynamic popped up again when San Diego Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. disclosed on Friday that he had been suspended for 80 games after a drug test found clostebol, a banned substance, in his system. Tatis has certainly been a headache for the Padres since signing a 14-year, $340 million extension in February 2021: He feuded with teammate Manny Machado last season, has missed this season so far because of a wrist injury he suffered while riding a motorcycle in the off-season (which he did not tell the team about), and now this. But the idea that his career is now irreparably tainted — that he’s forever a “drug cheat,” as Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci called him — is based on the same old flawed idea: That there’s no greater crime in baseball than taking PEDs.
In this case, it’s worth mentioning which PEDs Tatis actually ingested. Clostebol is a derivative of testosterone, officially classified as a steroid; it is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, largely because it was the centerpiece of the East German state-sponsored doping program. You might deduce, from the “East German” there, that clostebol has also been very much out of practice for decades. Only three players have ever been busted for it, and none in six years; as sports medical expert Will Carroll noted in his newsletter, it’s “not what anyone looking to get away with usage would select.” More important, there’s no reason to think the drug would have helped Tatis on the field in any way. Considering he is dealing with a fractured wrist and that clostebol in fact impedes bone healing, it probably hurt him. So why did he take it? Only Tatis knows, but it’s worth noting that, as baseball writer Joe Sheehan pointed out in his newsletter, of the last 18 MLB players to be busted for using PEDs since 2008, 14 of them are, like Tatis, from the Dominican Republic, despite only making up 12 percent of the player pool. Sheehan notes: “Something is getting lost in translation in this process. Unless you want to argue that Dominicans are just three times as likely to cheat as Americans are — an argument that would have gotten you a deserved beating in my old neighborhood — you have to see that there is a systemic failure happening here.” Certainly there’s more going on than just “he’s a drug cheat.”
(Tatis, for his part, said the drug was an ingredient in a medication he used to deal with ringworm, a ludicrous explanation that, as dermatologist—and baseball writer—Rany Jazayerli hilariously pointed out on Twitter, likely resulted from Tatis messing up a Google search. Tatis’s father, a former MLB player himself, changed the story on Monday, claiming his son used a hair spray with clostebol in it. So there’s that.)
But to many baseball fans, taking PEDs, a vague term that somehow includes clostebol but not cortisone shots, which are literal steroids, leads directly to athletic success — as if Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa had no idea how to play baseball until they popped a pill and then just started launching bombs. (This pathology is specific to baseball fans; NFL players get nailed for PEDs all the time, including likely Hall of Famer DeAndre Hopkins just this off-season, and the only real outrage is that the suspensions hurt the player in fantasy football drafts.) Never mind that neither Bonds, McGwire, nor Sosa ever failed a drug test — the only one of the three to ever admit PED use was McGwire, who took androstenedione and HGH, neither of which were banned by baseball when he took them. It’s also far from certain that whatever PEDs or supplements they took even did much for them. For all the talk of steroid-fueled homers, the majority of players busted for PEDs in baseball history have in fact been pitchers. This makes sense, because PEDs aren’t used like Popeye used spinach; they’re used to recover from workouts more quickly, and pitchers need to work out just as much, if not more, than hitters. They may — may — help players stay healthier on the field (though McGwire blamed PEDs for his career ending because of injuries), and they may allow your further workouts to help you build up muscle mass, which may — may — put an extra five feet or so on your fly balls, but what they don’t do is make you suddenly learn how to hit homers when you didn’t know how before. You have to do that on your own.
Which is exactly what Aaron Judge is doing. (This assumes he hasn’t taken any PEDs himself; remember, he has failed exactly as many tests as McGwire and Sosa have.) Again, Judge may be having a better home-run-hitting season than any of those players, considering the quality of the pitching he’s facing. But if he wants the all-time home-run record, he’s going to have to hit 73. The arguments otherwise are beginning to resemble the claims that Mickey Mantle was the greatest hitter ever (rather than an incredible talent whose career was cut short due to both injuries and substance abuse), which held currency mostly because he happened to thrive at a time when boomers were falling in love with baseball. It has become a way to denigrate players like Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa — though not, curiously, recent Hall of Fame inductee David Ortiz, who reportedly failed a test back in 2003, something he once amusingly blamed on the Yankees — and to pretend that there is some “pure” form of baseball — a form that happens to be exactly like the baseball that exists in their childhood memories.
There is no proof that PEDs make you better. There is no proof that they help you hit homers. There’s not even any proof that Bonds ever took them, not anything that ever stood up in a court of law, anyway. There is just a desire to pretend that baseball was once something better, back before PEDs “ruined” it. One could argue that if you believe this — if you believe Aaron Judge deserves a home-run record because you’re angry about something that happened 20 years ago that wasn’t even banned at the time — you might not really love baseball, or sports, quite as much as you think you do.
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