Chris Davis, the 'clean' home run king? If he hits 62, let the debate begin
David LennonDavid Lennon
David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since
Chris Davis is on a furious pace that could get him to 62 home runs by the end of this season, one more than the record Roger Maris held for 37 years. But he's a little late to make history.
Or is he?
Since 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa vaulted over Maris by clobbering 70 and 66, respectively, the 61-homer plateau has been passed six times by a total of three players. Barry Bonds, the third, is the current home run king with 73 in 2001.
Each of those sluggers has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs in some way. And since Major League Baseball began the penalty phase of its PED testing program in June 2004, four players have hit 50-plus. Ryan Howard is the leader with 58 in 2006.
That, however, was before MLB started screening for HGH, as it does now. Which brings us back to Orioles first baseman Davis, whose 33 homers in 87 games currently have him in contention to be the first to beat Maris in this post-testing era.
In the view of some people -- let's call them the pro-asterisk crowd -- it could be a very significant accomplishment. Davis has heard the banging of those drums already.
"That I could be the clean guy," Davis -- who hit a two-run shot off Andy Pettitte on Saturday -- said Friday at the Stadium.
Does he think it's a meaningful distinction?
"Yeah, I think it's good," said Davis, who will be the American League's starting first baseman in the All-Star Game. "I think the '98 season was a lot of fun to watch for me as a fan, and then whenever you heard about all the accusations coming out, it was a little disheartening. I think it's frustrating at times for a guy like me because I do take a lot of heat for the mistakes that guys have made in the past."
And if Davis does pass Maris, how should history view him after all that we've witnessed during the so-called steroid era? It's a similar argument to the one that exploded this past winter for the 2012 Hall of Fame class. Does the suspicion of PED use or an admission of guilt discredit a player's resume? Are those numbers tainted or, even worse, invalid?
The extremists, moralists or so-called purists unequivocally say yes. So far, the middle has sided with baseball's far right in keeping players such as McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell out of Cooperstown.
The record books, however, are not subject to the voting body of the BBWAA or influenced by the court of public opinion. The numbers are the numbers, and whether somebody is considered "clean" or "dirty" is not going to rearrange those ranks, in whatever category that may be.
It just so happens the home run record carries a prestige beyond baseball, and that, in turn, compels people to wrestle over the sanctity of the title. Or try to attach unrealistic standards in an effort to protect the crown.
"Sure it's glamorous," said John Thorn, MLB's official historian. "And there are people who want to apply levelers or asterisks to the numbers, to diminish McGwire's mark or Bonds' mark.
"They want to take 10 percent off or they want to put an asterisk by it. And I think this is complete foolishness. The record book is not the place to weigh in on morality. Let the records be the records, and if you wish to understand the records in historical context, bravo. Once you start sprinkling asterisks in the record book, there's no stopping it."
Thorn pointed to the competitive difference between eras and generations and stressed the importance of evaluating players by sizing them up against those in a similar time frame. He also said it's more effectively done with averages rather than counting totals, such as homers, triples, doubles, etc.
But that won't put an end to the arguments. And comparing Davis to the sluggers before him -- some powered by PEDs -- is an inexact science.
"I think we have to acknowledge that it's fun," Thorn said, referring to baseball's insatiable appetite for debate. "You can make [comparisons] less unfair by doing certain things, but ultimately you will hit a roadblock:
"Is the average player in baseball better today than he was 100 years ago? I think everyone will say yes. Is the average pitcher that [Babe] Ruth faced as good as the pitchers that Davis is facing? I would say certainly not. You have to take the measures with a grain of salt."
Vernon Wells, a 15-year veteran, has been outspoken this season about clamping down on PEDs in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal and the alleged involvement of his teammates, Alex Rodriguez and Francisco Cervelli. Even so, Wells doesn't pin all of the statistical swings on PEDs as much as the overall improvement of the players. In his mind, the level of performance hasn't changed all that much. "There's still strong guys," Wells said. "Guys are coming up and throwing even harder than they were back then. I think the athlete is evolving and getting better, which happens with every generation.
"They continue to get bigger, continue to get faster, continue to get stronger. I think you're seeing that and you're not having as much of a cloud above guys' heads as you did back then."
Thorn called PED testing a "red herring" when it comes to comparing historical accomplishments because the effects are difficult to measure precisely. To what degree did PEDs help? How widespread were they? Who did them?
Wells acknowledged that players had ideas about who was using, but there still is a high level of skill required to succeed.
Davis is happy not to worry about such things. Or give others the reason to. However history chooses to view him, whether he catches Maris or not, Davis is most satisfied that he can look at himself in the mirror.
"I think any time you do something that draws as much attention as what I've done, you don't want to have people second-guessing you," Davis said, "and I would think you wouldn't want to second-guess yourself. Is this what I'm doing? Or is this the stuff that I'm taking that's making me do these things? I think it's more about knowing that I'm doing this all on my own."