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Steroids And The All-Time Home Run List: Consequences Of Revising Baseball History

Some think home runs hit by known PED users should be erased from the record books. But if we're prepared to do so, we should also be prepared to take a look at an alternate history, one in which these home runs were never hit.

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The question of what we should do with baseball's career home run list is one that has been asked for years and that will probably be asked until the final days of baseball, if they ever come. This is especially startling precisely because nothing should be done, or, more accurately, nothing can be done without mutilating a document of historical record into a Facebook "rank your favorites" app.

Some have suggested omitting the offending parties (Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, etc.) from the list entirely. (OMG, you guys, they were 'roiders! 3 people like this.) Others suggest denoting known PED users with an asterisk. This solution seems less outrageous at first, but the effect would ultimately be similar: we'd simply train our eyes to skim past the asterisked names as though they were "salt and pepper to taste" in a soup recipe, and the sneaky insinuation would be that these home runs happened, but, you know, they didn't really happen.

They did really happen, and they did not happen in a vacuum. These home runs were functions of box scores, and many of them turned a loss into a win. Sometimes, these wins accumulated to result in a playoff berth or a victorious playoff series. And if we're prepared to strike them from the record, we should also be prepared to take a look at an alternate history, one in which these home runs were never hit.

As long as we're at it, we may as well have a little fun and simulate any hypothetical games that would have been played as a result. We'll do this with the assistance of the endlessly fascinating game simulator at WhatIfSports. And we'll answer other "what-if"s along the way. Would the Giants have won the National League pennant in 2002? Would the goatee ever have made a comeback in the 1990s? Would any cows' lives have been spared? There are consequences, both positive and negative, both relevant and irrelevant, and sometimes benign, that will be presented below.

This is little more than a plea for consistency. If you'd like to disregard a single home run by anyone, much less all of Bonds' 756 or all of A-Rod's 600, you ought to stick to your guns. This is not bowling, Smokey, this is baseball. There is context.


Notes From A History In Which Barry Bonds' Home Runs Were Never Hit


Standing on the all-time home run list: No. 1 (762).
Stricken from the record: Career home runs nos. 572, 577, 588, and 591 (all in 2002)
Projected fallout:

  • Instead of finishing with a 95-66 record, the Giants end up at 91-70. They fall short of the Dodgers, who clinch the N.L. wild card.
  • According to the simulation I ran, the Braves sweep the Giants in the NLDS. In the NLCS, the Braves beat the Cardinals in seven games. The Braves then win the World Series over the Angels in five games.
  • Giants reliever Robb Nen does not further damage his shoulder by pitching deep into the playoffs. He is able to rehab his rotator cuff and continue pitching for a few years, adding numbers to a career that was already worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, but was dismissed in his first year of eligibility.

Notes From A History In Which Sammy Sosa's Home Runs Were Never Hit


Standing on the all-time home run list: No. 6 (609).
Stricken from the record: Career home runs nos.  523, 531 (2003)
Projected fallout:

  • The Cubs finish at 86-76 instead of 88-74. They fail to win the N.L. Central, which goes to the Astros.
  • Per the simulation, the Astros fall to the Braves in the NLDS, three games to one. The Braves end up losing to the Marlins, 4-3, in the NLCS.
  • Nobody knows who Steve Bartman is. 
  • Lacking the cautionary tale, some fan, at some point in the future, will reach out and snatch away a ball that, if caught, would have led to a World Series appearance. This will probably happen to the Brewers in, I don't know, 2019.

Notes From A History In Which Alex Rodriguez's Home Runs Were Never Hit


Standing on the all-time home run list: No. 7 (600).
Stricken from the record: Career home run no. 27 (1996)
Projected fallout:

  • Greg Gohr of the Tigers does not give up a home run to Alex Rodriguez.
  • After the game, the Tigers do not ship Greg Gohr off to the Angels.
  • Greg Gohr does not have to leave Detroit, where he made a bunch of friends, for the Angels, where none of his friends are.
  • With a solid, supportive network of friends, Greg Gohr harnesses his natural ability and assembles a remarkable, 18-year career, rather than struggling through the remainder of the season and leaving baseball forever.
  • Before a game against the Braves in 2008, Gregor Blanco approaches Greg Gohr and points out that Greg Gohr's entire name is Blanco's first name. Greg Gohr thinks that this is pretty neat.

Notes From A History In Which Mark McGwire's Home Runs Were Never Hit


Standing on the all-time home run list: No. 9 (583).
Stricken from the record: All of them
Projected fallout:

  • The other "Bash Brother" is Jose Canseco's brother, Ozzie Canseco. Or, more likely, Jose Canseco is referred to simply as, "The Bash Only Child."
  • We are not treated to that weird gut-punch gesture he did with Sammy Sosa that ESPN still plays seventeen times a day in slow motion.
  • We are not left to wonder why this is considered a friendly gesture. It's a gut punch. Those hurt!
  • Without his home runs, McGwire has no name recognition, and without this, he lacks the clout to re-introduce the goatee to mainstream America. Millions of men want to grow beards, but cannot grow thick facial hair on their cheeks, and are not sure of what to do about it.

Notes From A History In Which Rafael Palmeiro's Home Runs Were Never Hit


Standing on the all-time home run list: No. 12 (583).
Stricken from the record: Nos. 235, 244, 258 (1997)
Projected fallout:

  • Without these three home runs, the Orioles lose three games they would have otherwise won. As a consequence, the Yankees win the division and the Orioles play the Indians in the ALDS.
  • Per the simulation, the Orioles fall to the Indians in the ALDS, just as they actually did in the ALCS. Meanwhile, the Mariners face the Yankees and defeat them in five games.
  • Continuing the simulation, the Mariners win the ALCS over the Indians in six games, then defeat the Florida Marlins in seven games to win their first World Series in franchise history.
  • Jay Buhner, rather than a hazily-remembered afterthought, becomes a household name. He popularizes a style of goatee that is perfect for men who cannot grow facial hair on the sides of their mouth, thus rendering it socially acceptable for every American male to grow facial hair in some iteration.

Notes From A History In Which Jeremy Giambi's Home Runs Were Never Hit


Standing on the all-time home run list: No. 1,000+ (52)
Stricken from the record: All of them

General, Scattered Notes From Our Real, Actual History

I'll close with a few thoughts. Take from them what you will.

  • Of all the players within the top 100 of the career home runs list, 13 have been credibly associated with PED use (Bonds, Sosa, Rodriguez, McGwire, Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Jason Giambi, Matt Williams, David Ortiz, and Mo Vaughn). These 13 have combined to hit a total of exactly 6,162 home runs. This is higher than the total number of home runs hit in baseball in all of 2009 (5,042).
  • This means that throughout the past 25 years, these 13 players have ensured that about 5% more kids have caught home run balls.
  • This also means, of course, that if these 6,162 baseballs had never been hit, they never would have needed to be manufactured. Regulation MLB balls are made of cow hide, and in terms of raw surface area, we get about 2,170 baseballs out of a cow. Working on this assumption, two cows and change needed to die for these home runs to be hit.
  • If we were to strike every player from the list who was credibly associated with PED use, four who played in the era in question would make the top 20 -- Ken Griffey, Jr. (4th), Jim Thome (6th), Frank Thomas (tied for 12th), and Fred McGriff (tied for 20th). Keep in mind that plenty of pitchers used PEDs as well.

So! To rephrase: it doesn't matter whether you object to PEDs because you object to artificial substances to begin with, or because you object to the crooked playing field that has resulted. Unlike many arenas of historical record, we know that, for example, Bonds hit 762 home runs. And if you choose to qualify or disregard the total, you're logically beholden to do the same to each individual home run. Best of luck.