It has been 20 years since the dawn of the 1998 baseball season. The season would see one of the great teams of all time as the Yankees marched towards the World Series, meanwhile Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the single season home run record. Knowing what we know now about many of the players who helped revive baseball that summer does diminish some of the fondness. However as Mark McGwire famously said before Congress, “I am not here to talk about the past.”
The 1994 players strike severely damaged baseball. The cancellation of the World Series and the delayed start of the 1995 season saw fans turn their backs on the game. Arguing who is blame, the players or the owners, for this dark time in baseball is for another day, what mattered then was how would the game win back the fans it lost. Some fans still see 1994 as the death of baseball, don’t believe me check out this Facebook group which has more than 22,000 members. Right or wrong baseball needed a season to get its fans back.
Cal Ripken Jr. gave baseball a moment it needed to draw fans back to the game. (REUTERS/ Gary Hershorn/Files)
Baseball got a much needed boost when Cal Ripken Jr. played his 2,131st consecutive game, passing Lou Gehrig for most consecutive games played on September 6, 1995. This was a moment baseball desperately needed showing the good of the game. It was however, a moment. Baseball needed more than one night of glory, it needed a season of suspense and wonderment.
The 1998 New York Yankees are one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The Boston Red Sox won 92 games, yet finished 22 games behind the Yankees in the division. The Yankees finished the season 114-48. The Bronx Bombers had eight players with at least 17 home runs, five players with at least 84 RBI, and eight players with 21 or more doubles. The Yankees hit .288 as a team. On the mound, all five Yankee starters had at least 12 wins, a team ERA of 3.82, with the starters averaging 6 ⅔ inning per start, plus Mariano Rivera nailing down 36 saves out of the bullpen. In the Playoffs, the Yankees swept the Texas Rangers in the American League Divisional Series three games to none, allowing only one run. In the American League Championship Series, the Yankees dispatched the Cleveland Indians in six games. In the World Series, New York swept the San Diego Padres in four games. The 98 win Padres were no match for the Yankees. The biggest team in baseball helped put the game back into people’s lives as they rolled through the season and playoffs. Yankee dominance helped, but the primary attraction was in the National League.
There was little drama as the Yankees swept the World Series. (Jeff Haynes/ AFP/ Getty Images)
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa later became the poster children for what was wrong with baseball, but in the summer of 1998 they were what made baseball relevant again for much of the country. Divisional rivals on two of the most prominent teams in the sport, McGwire and Sosa embarked on a home run race that captured the attention of the country. When Roger Maris broke the single season home run record held by Babe Ruth, there was backlash. People felt Ruth’s record should be left alone. When Maris ultimately hit home run number 61 in 1961 he did it in game 162, which many believe meant his record deserved an asterisk as he took more games than Ruth’s 154 game schedule in 1927. If McGwire, Sosa, or some other slugger could hit 60 home runs fewer than 154 games they would hold the record.
McGwire hit 11 home runs by the end of April, only to hit 16 in May to bring his season total to 27 as the calendar turned to June. On May 22nd, Sosa had only 9 home runs against McGwire’s 24. Over the next six weeks Sosa got red hot, hitting 24 home runs. Heading into the All Star Break, McGwire lead Sosa 37 home runs to 33. The race for 62 was on. McGwire hit his 50th home run of the season on August 20th, Sosa followed with his 50th three days later on August 23rd. However in between a whirlwind began on August 22nd regarding McGwire’s use of Androstenedione. McGwire maintained his use of Andro was legal and it did not give him any added benefits on the field. This is perhaps the clearest beginning of the steroid era entering public knowledge. The use of Andro did little to distract the public from the frenzy of the home run chase. September 8th saw McGwire hit his shortest home run of the season, 341 feet, just clearing the left field wall in Busch Stadium. McGwire and the Cardinals were hosting Sosa and the Cubs that night. After initially missing first base in the midst of his joy, quickly retreating to touch the missed base, McGwire rounded the bases to officially set the new single season home run mark at 62. Sosa would tie McGwire at 62 home runs on September 13th. As the 1998 season wound down the question turned to how high McGwire and Sosa would push the home run record. For the only time all season Sosa took the lead on September 25th, when he hit his 66th and final home run of the season. McGwire would finish with a flurry, hitting five home runs in the last three games of the season to finish with 70 home runs.
The home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped revive baseball one home run at a time. (AP Photo/ Beth A. Keiser)
There was no doubt both McGwire and Sosa broke the single season home run record, Ruth’s and Maris’. Sosa would be named the National League Most Valuable Player, while McGwire got his name in the record books. The summer of chasing Ruth and Maris brought baseball the excitement back it lost in the 1994 players strike. The chase between McGwire and Sosa, coupled with the total dominance of the Yankees gave baseball the season it needed to win back fans and rebuild trust.
20 years have passed since the summer of 1998. We have learned so much about the men who played that summer. Far too many had their abilities aided by steroids and other performance enhancers. The steroid era was on full display, we just did not know it yet. The revival of baseball was both helped and hurt by the steroid era, many players have since fallen from grace. The game continues to grow and much of the magic I remember as a kid has returned. The summer of 1998 helped revive baseball, and yet my most vivid memory from that summer is having no interest in any of it. 1998 was my last season playing organized baseball. I had a coach who took the fun out of the game. He would scream and yell when the players, myself included, did not get a hit. He changed my batting stance over and over again. I came to dread going to baseball practice and games. The joy of playing baseball was gone. A year or so later I wanted to play for a travel team, but I was late to the tryout we did not get out of the car. This is how my baseball career ended. I am under no illusion I was good enough to play professionally, maybe not even in high school. However, one person ruined baseball, it took years for my love of the game to return. I hope he still remembers how great those handful of victories were for our Spring 11/12U rec league team 20 years ago.
Once again Major League Baseball is worrying about pace of play during games. Commissioner Rob Manfred and Executive Director of the Player’s Association Tony Clark have gone back and forth about proposed rule changes to speed up games in 2018. The latest round of pace of play rules include limiting catchers to one mound visit per inning per pitcher, a 20 second pitch clock, and raising the strike zone from the bottom of the kneecap to the top. All of these changes have been rejected by the Player’s Association, yet MLB could still institute them unilaterally for the 2018 season. The average game in 2017 lasted three hours and five minutes, which is longer than before the last round of pace of play rules were instituted. So with longer games comes more tinkering.
Baseball, like all sports, will have slow boring games from time to time, this is just reality. Instead of trying to change the game, why not take some steps that would improve fan interaction with baseball. Shorten commercial breaks for those watching at home. All the talk is about pace of play, what about when fans cannot even see the game. Obviously baseball makes a great deal of money off commercials, so raise the price of those commercials. How can you raise the price of commercials throughout the year? Market the players more. Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, and many more should be as well know as the top football and basketball players. If MLB marketed the players more aggressively, they could charge advertisers more for commercials and partnerships as the endorsement of these players would have greater weight nationally. Increased revenue from advertising would mean shorter commercial breaks during games. Take away one 30 second commercial from each break and you have saved close to 10 minutes during each game.
Baseball should focus on eliminating down time not necessarily the time needed to complete a game. Shorter commercial breaks are a great place to start. (Chuck Solomon/ Sports Illistrated)
The pitch clock, which is already used in the minor leagues, and does not do much. I have not seen nor heard of any pitcher getting charged a ball for taking too long. It is a friendly reminder to get on with the next pitch, but little else. Limiting mound visits could minimally speed up the game, however multiple mound visits in an inning usually only occurs in late game, high leverage moments. Let the players play. Speed the game up in when little is happening, not when the game is on the line.
This off season has also seen an incredibly slow free agent market. Call it what you want: collusion, low balling the players, players and agents having unrealistic salary expectations. Whatever. Yes, both sides, owners and players, want to make as much money as possible. Owners want a return on their financial investments, players want to maximize their earnings during their playing careers. However, when agents like Brodie Van Wagenen start floating ideas like players boycotting Spring Training this makes baseball look bad. Baseball has had labor peace for almost a quarter century, one slow off season and you are ready to blow it up? The Strike in 1994 did major, lasting damage to baseball. Lots of fans lost interest and it took years for the game to come back. Cal Ripken Jr. passing Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak and the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped bring many fans back, but not all of them. Is another scandalous era like the steroid era really in baseball’s best interest?
Baseball needs to market itself and the players more aggressively. If people are interested, they will not care that a game lasts a little over three hours. Give the fans something to be interested in, even if the game itself is not great. Start games a little earlier so kids can watch more of a game, or the whole game before they have to go to bed. Starting a game at 6:45 pm instead of 7:05 pm would give a kid twenty more minutes of baseball, or roughly a full inning of baseball. Getting kids and young adults interested in baseball will grow baseball to new heights. Shaving a minute or two off the average length of a game ultimately does not matter if the sport itself is not drawing and holding the attention of an ever growing audience. Pace of play is important, but not if people were never interested in the first place. Put the game and players on display, not the advertisers.
I took a few days to think about Pete Rose and his quest to have his lifetime ban from baseball lifted. Reflecting on what I think about the man and his situation, I feel sorry for Pete Rose. I have softened my view of Pete Rose. The All-Time Hit King’s lifetime ban from the game of baseball may have truly become written in stone.
Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that he was not reinstating Pete Rose from the permanently ineligible list. This now makes three Commissioners of Baseball that have denied Rose his reinstatement after Bart Giamatti banned him in 1989. Commissioner Manfred and Rose met to discuss his petition. I believe Commissioner Manfred did the proper thing in meeting with Rose and listening to him. There is nothing wrong with listening to Rose. Having served over 25 years in exile, it is only fair to listen to the man and see if he has reconfigured his life as Commissioner Giamatti urged. Pete Rose admitted he continues to gamble on sports, including baseball. This sort of honesty is 25 years too late, but it is never too late to start telling the truth. Telling the truth is a small step towards reconfiguring his life, however Rose has not moved away from the gambling. His continued gambling on baseball does not instill faith into Commissioner Manfred, or anyone else, that Pete Rose has changed his ways.
I am not sad that Pete Rose is banned from baseball. Personally, I believe it is justified based upon his now admitted gambling on baseball games he was involved in. I am sad that a 74-year-old man has not been able to face the truth and change. Major League Baseball may now be completely finished with ever entertaining the reinstatement of Rose. The reality is that Rose may never have the opportunity to present his case for reinstatement to another Commissioner. The impact Rose could have had on the game and its players will never be known, as the man could not conduct himself within the rules of the game.
Major League Baseball does not control the National Baseball Hall of Fame and its voting process. In theory, Pete Rose could appear on the Hall of Fame ballot, while remaining permanently ineligible for reinstatement to baseball. Rose’s support seems to have waned in recent months after ESPN reported that Rose had bet on games while he was playing and managing. This evidence further highlighted the half-truths and blatant lies Rose has been telling since the investigation into his gambling began in 1989. The Hall of Fame voters have been tough on alleged PED users such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, and many others. It is doubtful that these same voters would show kindness and mercy to Rose.
I feel sorry for Pete Rose because he will never have his day in the sun as a Major League manager and as a newly inducted member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His accomplishments as a player made him a legitimate first ballot Hall of Famer. Is there any baseball fan who would try arguing against this? What is so unfortunate is that the gambling and his banishment from baseball will forever overshadow Rose’s accomplishments and the honors he should have received. No one, except for Rose can say with certainty why he has literally gambled away his opportunity to return to baseball. The wreckage that has become his baseball life is solely his responsibility. Yes, he has begun working with Fox during their baseball broadcasts, but this is as close to reinstatement as he will get.
On August 24, 1989, Commissioner Bart Giamatti summed up the investigation and banishment of Pete Rose due to his gambling activities with the following:
“The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is the sad end of a sorry episode. One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts. By choosing not to come to a hearing before me, and by choosing not to proffer any testimony or evidence contrary to the evidence and information contained in the report of the special counsel…Mr. Rose has accepted baseball’s ultimate sanction, lifetime ineligibility.”
Commissioner Giamatti understood the sad duty he had to carry out. The lifetime ban of Pete Rose had stained the game of baseball and brought doubt upon active players and managers about gambling on games. Even in the face of a potential lifetime ban, Rose was defiant. Rose would continue his defiant stance for over two decades before his stance began to weaken. A little at a time the truth seems to be emerging about Rose and his gambling. On the day he was banned from baseball, a reporter asked Rose if he would seek help for his gambling. His response was quintessential Pete Rose,
“No, because I don’t think I have a gambling problem. As a consequence, I will not seek help at this time.”
Giamatti had no choice but to issue baseball’s harshest punishment in order to protect the game. Pete Rose willingly accepted the lifetime ban. Bear in mind that it was not a punishment simply levied on him in response to a discovery of rules being broken. Rose signed an agreement that he would accept a lifetime ban from the game if Major League Baseball would halt their investigation into his gambling. Rose chose to deal with the devil he knew, a lifetime ban from the game, instead of the devil he did not know, the exposure of all his gambling activities and associates. Rose was compelled to make a decision for his best interest. He could either accept the lifetime ban or deal with the United States government and his gambling associates. Rose chose the lifetime ban.
I have softened on Pete Rose because we never want to see our sports heroes suffering from human foibles. The childhood of millions of Americans forever changed when Mickey Mantle spoke about his life shortly before his death in 1995. The regrets Mantle had about his life during his press conference at Baylor University Medical Center humanized Mantle like never before. Mantle became real and frail, no longer the perfect ball player but the imperfect man. Pete Rose has likewise become human. He was a gritty ball player who has continually shown he is an imperfect and stubborn man. Thousands of kids in Cincinnati and elsewhere looked up to Rose. Charlie Hustle gave everything he could on the baseball diamond. He truly was the best baseball player he could be, and that is something for which he should be admired. I have little doubt that Rose bet on the Reds to win every time he gambled on them as a manager and a player. His desire to win, seemingly at all costs and reflected in the way he played the game, would not allow him to purposely lose. Even if this is true, it does not make it better. Playing and managing to win the game, even when the game is well out of hand can have an impact on the following day’s game. While not purposely throwing games, this can change the perception of whether the game is played fairly. The loss of confidence by fans in this notion can irreparably harm the game, such as it has in Taiwan. There is nothing wrong with being imperfect; we all have our faults. Rose, however, has never been able to admit he has these faults, and this is what makes his story so awful. The pride of the man will not allow him to accept what he has done and work to make amends.
The sadness comes from a man who should command so much respect, yet has thrown it all away because he could not fully admit he made a mistake. Rose would have been better served if he had spoken honestly about his mistakes and actively worked to remove all gambling from his life. Pete Rose does not seem to understand that he is the master of his own destiny. He could not persuade Commissioners Fay Vincent and Bud Selig, nor can he persuade Commissioner Manfred to lift his ban. If he had actively worked to reconfigure his life, he would have not only shown these Commissioners that he had changed, but it would have also increased the support for his reinstatement. There are no guarantees in life, but it is better to strive for greatness and fall short than to never try. Major League Baseball has done what is necessary to protect itself from the potential damage Rose could have inflicted upon the game if he had continued playing and gambling. I wish Pete Rose could enjoy the honors his playing career earned him. However, Pete Rose has chosen not to allow baseball to reexamine his banishment due to his ongoing behavior and refusal to reconfigure his life. Pete Rose cannot get the last 25 years back. He has made his own decisions, and will continue to live with the consequences of those decisions. Everyone loses in the end. No one can truly claim there is any victory in any of this. Commissioner Bart Giamatti summed it all up perfectly in 1989 and it still holds true today, this is “the sad end of a sorry episode”.
The “slide” by the Dodgers Chase Utley into second base was horrific. No one but Utley can say with certainty what his intentions were, but from what we saw Utley went in either with cruel intentions or forgot how to slide into second base. Whatever his intentions were Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada now has a fractured right fibula.
Chase Utley has played 13 seasons in the Majors, he has played 12, 954 ⅔ innings at second base, and turned 902 double plays. He is not a starry eyed rookie, Utley knows howto play the game. He knows how a player should and should not try to break up a double play. What was on display at Dodger Stadium in Game 2 of the National League Divisional Series was grotesque. Utley knows better, but he injured another player because he did not play the game they way it should be played. The play was dirty, plain and simple, but why when Chase Utley is generally not seen a dirty player?
People are going to argue that the play was not dirty, just Utley playing hard like they use to play. First, it was a dirty play. Second, just because that is how they use to play the game does not mean it is the right way to play. Utley was on top of second base when he began his“slide”. Tejada was doing everything he could to protect himself by being behind the bag. Turning a double play is dangerous for the shortstop or second baseman that has to make the turn. Tejada used the bag as best he could to shield himself from a clean, hard slide, which was justified. However, this is not happened. Tejada had to have his back to Utley to receive the ball from Daniel Murphy, this places him in a compromised position. As Utley is going in to break up the double play he begins his slide so late that he does not make contact with the ground as part of his slide until he is past second base. Beginning his slide so late meant Utley’s body was still high up, potentially too high for Tejada to avoid. It looks almost like a football player being tackled after an unsuccessful attempt to hurdle the defender. This is far too late for the play to be safe but hard. Utley sliding in late with Tejada’s back to him as he begins to turn places the responsibility on Utley to not do anything stupid or dirty so that both players do not get hurt. Apparently this was too much to ask of Chase Utley as he sees the play developing and goes into second base hard, late, and high. Utley also goes in with his body wide. Yes it does appear that he is trying to make contact with the base, in accordance with the rules. However, “sliding” in wide, late, and high with Tejada’s back to him in this case meant the contact was guaranteed. This is where a play turns both dirty and dangerous. The best case scenario for Tejada to be violently flipped by Utley, and even then the play would have been dirty. The reality though is much worse. Tejada was defenseless and paid the price for Utley’s inability to understand that his attempt to break up the double play in this manner was foolish and dangerous. Utley’s stupidity, regardless of intent, has resulted in Tejada having a broken leg and Utley receiving a knee to the head, likely a mild concussion or at least having his bell rung. The Mets lose their starting shortstop and the Dodgers might lose a backup second baseman. There was no need for Utley to take out Tejada. It was a stupid play.
After the game ended with the Dodgers evening up the NLDS at one game each, MLB Network begins breaking down the game as a whole and debating whether the play was dirty or not. Eric Byrnes adamantly argued that the play was hard, but not dirty, and that this is how players use to break up double plays. (Brynes has since changed his opinion after seeing the replay more and doing further analysis, which I respect him for doing). Brynes was a fun player to watch because he brought intensity, grit, and passion to the game everyday. However, his initial reaction to this situation was wrong. Just because something has always been done a certain way does not mean that it should continue to be done that way. (Again Brynes has changed his opinion from his initial reaction, but that initial reaction is held by some people). Plays like the one Tejada and Utley were involved in have the potential to end careers; severe concussions, destroyed knees, shattered legs.
Change has never come easy to baseball. Purist usually argue that changing the game in any way will negatively impact the game as a whole. Slowly but surely baseball has changed, and usually for the better. Baseball had always allowed for home plate collisions. Talk to Buster Posey about his lost season or Ray Fosse about how his career was never the same. Baseball had allowed the spitball. Talk to Ray Chapman’s family and see how they felt about it after he was killed by the pitch. Talk to the countless African-American players who were denied the ability to play in the Majors simply because of their skin color. Baseball had not drug tested for steroids and other PEDs. Talk to the families of Taylor Hooton and Rob Garibaldi who testified before Congress in the same hearing with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, and Jose Canseco. Taylor was 17 and Rob was 24 when they committed suicide due to their steroid use. Baseball is continuously changing. Obviously some of the changes it has undergone are far more important and far reaching than others. However, the notion that continuing to do something simply because it is the way it has always been done is absurd, especially if there is a different way to achieve the same end goal while reducing the danger to the players, to individuals who look up to the players, or to end injustice.
Chase Utley is not who usually comes to mind as being a dirty player, but what he did in Game 2 was a dirty play. Trying to break up a double play during a playoff game is good, hard baseball. However, what Utley did with his extremely late “slide” was to unnecessarily injure an opposing player and change the series. There are only two times in baseball that it should ever look like one player is tackling another: when a fight has broken out and players are trying to restrain one another and when a team is celebrating a win and the team is chasing the player who got the game winning hit. That is it. Chase Utley took out Ruben Tejada on a dirty “slide”.
If people who want to defend what Chase Utley want to talk about how his play is just how baseball is and should be played, then they also need to talk about something else. Regardless if it is in the NLDS or next season there will be a purpose pitch delivered. That is just how baseball is. It could this year before Utley’s appeal is heard. It could come next year when the two teams play each other. Somewhere down the line a purpose pitch will be delivered by the Mets to the Dodgers expressing their anger at this dirty “slide” by Chase Utley. Hopefully the batter on the receiving end of that pitch will be Utley himself and not one of his teammates. Noone should not have to get hit by a pitch for this. It was Utley’s stupidity, he should have to answer for it. Baseball players have always dealt with this sort of thing themselves, and in this case Eric Brynes and others are correct that some things in baseball do not need to change. This is how baseball has always policed itself, and this is how baseball should generally continue to police itself. A player does something stupid, let him take the punishment for it.
Major League Baseball acted quickly to suspend Utley. Too bad the suspension is not long enough. He should be suspended for more than just two game, conveniently he would have missed the games in New York had he not appealed. Two games is what you should get suspended for arguing for too long with an umpire about a bad call, not for taking out an opposing player. Utley and the Dodgers should feel the pain he inflicted on the Mets. Appealing his suspension is Utley’s right, but it would be shameful if it were to be reduced. Those on Utley’s side are arguing that he has gone in to break up double plays like this before without receiving a suspension. While this is true, it does not make it right. Fortunately, Utley has not injured anyone seriously before. Even Tejada has been on the receiving end of one of Utley’s “slides”, and he was able to walk away. The “slide” during Game 2 was the most egregious of Utley’s questionable slides, and it clearly went from trying to break up the double play to taking out an opposing player. Again we will never know what Utley’s intentions were when he went into second, but ultimately his intentions do not matter. Utley made a boneheaded and dirty play.
There is nothing wrong with playing hard and trying to break up a double play, especially in the playoffs. There is however a line between playing baseball hard and playing dirty. Chase Utley flew over that line when he took out Ruben Tejada with his absurdly late slide during Game 2. Go in hard, make the middle infielder jump to avoid you, make the throw to first a little more difficult and take some of the juice off the throw. There is nothing wrong with this. What is wrong is when you slide in late, wide, and high against a middle infielder who has his back turned toward you. Ruben Tejada was trying to make a play. He used second base to protect himself, but Chase Utley took him out with simply a dirty “slide” that resulted in a broken leg and the Mets losing Tejada for the rest of the playoffs.
The NLDS has been changed, and not for the better. Instead of talking about the series being tied at a game each, all the talk is about the injury to Tejada and whether the analysis think the play was dirty. This is not good for baseball. Instead of celebrating the game and the playoffs we are arguing whether the play was dirty. What a shame that a fairly ordinary play has turned into a season ending injury for one player and a debate about whether the play and player are dirty. You were better than this Chase Utley, what changed?
The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told: Thirty Unforgettable Tales from the Diamond by Jeff Silverman is a collection of excellent baseball stories. Some recount real events on the diamond, whereas some leap from the imagination of their authors. The book includes the classic comedy of Abbott and Costello doing “Who’s On First”, which I always find hilarious. Al Stump brings Ty Cobb back to life and shows a side of the Georgia Peach which many fans never saw. The immortal Red Barber discusses Jackie Robinson and the lead up to the permanent breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Gary Smith follows the home run chase of 1998. It was more than just Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Vin Scully calls the final inning of Sandy Koufax throwing a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. The missed greatness of Pete Reiser is told by W. C. Heinz.
The stories Jeff Silverman chooses to include in this book are great for the novice fan and for the baseball fanatic. The art of the short story is on full display. The writers do not have the chapters to develop characters and story lines. Rather they must develop the entirety of the story through careful selection of every word. This to me makes these stories come to life, as the reader does not get lost in the descriptive language. Letting the reader visualize the story for themselves, with the author as the guide is what makes great story telling.
Baseball books typically dive deep into the sport and focus on specific themes, people, or events. The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told deviates from this and to great success. Silverman provides a brief introduction to each piece to get the reader the proper context before they embark on the story. This is a great read, especially for those of us who take public transportation in our daily lives. Silverman does not require long stretches of time for the book to be read and enjoyed. His change of pace with this book is just what baseball fans need for filling those minutes during their commute, at lunch, or before bed.
40 years ago today, April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run king with his 715th career home run. The most revered record in Major League Baseball, perhaps in sports, passed from arguably the greatest player ever to a man who faced increasing racism with every home run he hit as he approached Ruth. The grace which Aaron displayed in the face of the ever increasing threats and media pressure showed the true character of the man. He was, and remains, a well-spoken and confident man, but you would never confuse his confidence for arrogance, he let his greatness speak for itself. Hank Aaron remains one of the great ambassadors for the game of baseball.
Aaron’s 715th home run is one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. The packed house at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with the Atlanta Braves playing the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers before a crowd of 53,775. Al Downing pitching for the Dodgers. The high kick and Downing delivered to Hank Aaron. The ball flying over the ball over the left-centerfield fence with the quick and easy swing. Announcer Milo Hamilton and Vin Scully each giving their own infamous call of the home run. Braves centerfielder Dusty Baker pointing towards the fence as he rose from a knee on the on-deck circle. Dodger leftfielder Bill Buckner climbing the wall trying to make a play. Braves relief pitcher Tom House catching the ball, and eventually returning it to Aaron. Davey Lopes, the Dodgers second baseman, and Bill Russell, the Dodgers shortstop, congratulating him as he rounded second base. The two fans running onto the field and running along with Aaron as he headed for third. The mob of people who greeted Aaron at home plate, the bear hug his mother gave him. The short, yet eloquent speech,
~“Thank God it’s over.”
While I was not even born yet when this happened, I have seen and heard about Aaron’s 715th home run enough to feel like I was there. Just watching a video of it gives me a bit of butterflies in my stomach. It is a truly magical moment in baseball history.
The man who broke Aaron’s record had a very different experience as he marched towards the record. The closer Barry Bonds came to hitting 756, the louder the noise become regarding his use of performance-enhancing drugs. More and more debate about whether he should even be, playing or if he should be suspended for his transgressions, or if his accomplishments should have an asterisk next to them. Yes Aaron faced an onslaught of racism, and no doubt Bonds did too from similarly ignorant people, although it seems less so which showed the progress of American society during the in the 33 years which Aaron held the record. However, I believe much of the ridicule and animosity against Bonds was due to his own actions. Aaron is by no means a perfect person, but Bonds epitomizes the steroid era and its assault on the record books. This for many baseball fans was, and is, unforgiveable.
Bonds is the all-time home run record holder, I do not dispute this. I was alive when it happened, so you would think I would remember more of the details of his breaking Hank Aaron’s record. It happened less than seven years ago, so it has not been that long ago. However, if I were to be put on the spot all I could tell you is the game was played in San Francisco in 2007. Not much else.
The story of Bonds’ historic night is much less romantic. On August 7, 2007 Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record during the Giants game against the Washington Nationals. He hit the home run off of Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik, before a crowd of 43,154. Bengie Molina was on deck. It was not nearly the same celebration of the game and its records which Aaron passing Ruth elicited. Bonds passing Aaron should be a moment that is played over and over again by Major League Baseball, but it is not. Putting it mildly, Bonds is a polarizing figure in baseball, ask Jeff Kent. His mere presence at Giants Spring Training this year set off a media frenzy about whether he should be there. He was also asked again about his performance-enhancing drug use, which he still tap dances around. Bonds will never be the beloved figure that Aaron is; it is just not in his personality.
Where does this leave us? In my opinion the Home Run King remains Hank Aaron, even though Barry Bonds has hit more home runs. The performance-enhancing drug cloud which surrounded Bonds’ career, especially after he became a San Francisco Giant, has led to cries for him to be stripped of his records. I am strongly against the use of PEDs, and believe those who are found guilty of using them should be punished, as I have previously stated here. Throwing someone out of baseball is not the same as removing their records and statistics from the game. Pete Rose was thrown out of baseball, but his records remain. Pose like Bonds is an integral part of baseball history which should not be forgotten, good or bad. Bonds, judging by the 36.2% and 34.7% of votes he received in his first two years of eligibility for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, will never receive the ultimate honor of being enshrined with the immortals of baseball. This will have to suffice as his punishment.
Like Pete Rose, Bonds will be remembered but never honored in Cooperstown for his accomplishments. The argument against removing Bonds from the record book is simple, if you start with him, where do you stop? Do you remove Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, what about Leo Durocher for his relationship with known gamblers, or Ty Cobb for his pronounced racism, and the list goes on and on. If baseball does decide to throw all these players, coaches, and other associates of baseball out, who plays the judge and jury? This is an entire other debate. You can ban someone from baseball, but you cannot change what they did. It would alter the outcomes of games, and there would be no end to revising the history of the game. Revising history makes the record book a mockery and without any value to be reverenced. Bonds and the steroid era are a part of the history of baseball, not necessarily a good part, but nonetheless it is a part that should be remembered.
Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds are two very different people. Aaron goes about his business with a quiet confidence and people truly listen when he speaks, as they have respect for his insights and opinions. Bonds has always had more flair and more of a demonstrative personality, which has rubbed many people the wrong way, just ask Bonds’ Pirates Manager Jim Leyland. People tend to only listen when Bonds speaks because they are waiting for a confession, not because they respect him. Neither Aaron’s or Bonds’ approach are completely right or wrong, they are just different. Both players were among the elite when they played. Both were clearly Hall of Fame caliber players, however Bonds chose to hang on to his youthful strength a little longer than father time would naturally allow. While Major League Baseball and the Players Union have in recent years become serious about weeding out the cheaters in the game, Bonds was like many players before him and after him seeking an advantage. Some players use a corked bat, like Sammy Sosa, or a foreign substance on the baseball, like Gaylord Perry, Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs. While I wish all sports could rid themselves of these drugs, the past is the past. It happened. Baseball, and sports in general, has two choices. They can remember the past, both good and bad, and learn from it. The other option is to revise or erase the past and over time repeat the same mistakes. There are two options, but only one should ever be taken. It is best to remember the past and its blemishes and to work to never repeat those mistakes.
40 years ago, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’ record for most career home runs in Major League Baseball. While Aaron no longer holds the record he is still the Home Run King. Simply having the most of something does not make you the king of something in sports; rather you are the record holder. Cy Young holds the record for most career wins, but he is not the King of Pitching. Arguments can be made for Sandy Koufax, Christy Mathewson, Tom Seaver, and a few others. The title of King is reserved for those who are among the elites, yet also receive the reverence of the fans. Aaron had the record and lost it. However, Bonds has not been enthroned as the Home Run King because he lacks the admiration from the fans, and I doubt he ever will, and he has only himself to blame.