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Picking and choosing the legitimate home-run records

Is Chris Davis chasing 61 homers or 73?

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

As a card-carrying Internet yahoo, I feel kind of compelled to respond to Jon Heyman's latest column about Chris Davis chasing the "legitimate single-season home-run record", supposedly held by Roger Maris. Boy, that's kind of a mouthful. A lot of hyphens, too. Maybe there's an acronym that can tighten that up a bit.

Davis is chasing the LESS HR record, let's say, which Heyman argues is the real HR record. Forget Bonds. Everyone should be chasing Maris.

The big number is 61, of course, and he knows it. Davis agrees that that's the legit number, first saying so on ESPN Radio. While he has said he enjoyed watching the 1998 Home Run Derby, he understands what was going on at the time.

The response from my fellow Internet yahoos was swift and predictable. Heyman as a crusty dinosaur. Heyman as the old guard. Heyman as the unenlightened. This isn't to make fun of Internet yahoos -- I'm pretty sure I'm going to be our treasurer once the midterm elections come in -- and some smart folks wrote good responses. Ted Berg had a nice piece for the USA Today, in which he argued forcefully that records aren't subjective. Which they aren't. Bonds hit more home runs in a single season than any other player. That's math.

So on one side there's a crusade to line out the objectionable passages of the record books. On the other, there's a group that alternately laughs and rages at the crusaders. And because of how the Internet works, these are only two opinions you will read.

I would like to take a bold stand, then. I would like the be the voice of the conflicted.

Because the idea that Maris's record is pure is a hilariously new one. For decades it was delegitimized because he played in a 162-game season instead of a 154-game season, like Ruth. So the LESS HR record belonged to Ruth. But Ruth didn't hit against non-white pitchers. Eyeballing a list of the best pitchers in the National League in 2002, roughly a quarter of them couldn't have played in the majors in Ruth's time. I don't have the historical acumen to do the same sort of eyeballing for Maris's era, but there were at least a few. Replace those guys with replacement-level pitchers, and let's guess what Bonds or Maris would have done.

One day someone will challenge a home-run record while playing half his games at Coors Field. Humidor or no, there will be someone in the next 50 years in the right place at the right time, and he'll have 40 in Coors by the All-Star break. Why would that be legitimate? Why wouldn't that be legitimate? There sure as heck wouldn't be an asterisk if it happened, but there would be a whole lot of mental adjustments when evaluating how impressive it is.

It's almost as if … as if … baseball records need "context" to be appreciated fully. All baseball records. Where did the player play? In what era? Against what sort of competition? On what substances? Pretending that a particular record doesn't exist is ludicrous. It's all a part of the baseball tapestry.

So I'm with the Internet yahoos. Give me a virtual high five and pass the cat pictures.

Except here's another thing: I get the willies when I think of how many people were (and still are) willing to experiment on their own bodies in the name of ego, pride, competition, money, and human nature. Players who didn't take performance-enhancing drugs in 2001 were absolutely at a disadvantage compared to Barry Bonds. Players who don't take PEDs today are at a disadvantage when it comes to chasing Bonds. Assuming Davis is clean, what kind of advantage would he gain if he were cleared and creamed to the gills with some of BALCO's finest? Would he hit an extra five homers? Ten? Any?

It doesn't really matter why every player didn't get a chance to PED it up like Bonds. Maybe they were born before they had the chance, or maybe they're scared of getting busted in the pee-test era, or maybe they didn't want any supposed side effects to affect their long-term health. But Bonds had an advantage. It's up to us to argue about what kind of advantage that was, and if it was more important than Bonds playing in an integrated league (disadvantage) with 30 teams (advantage) in a ballpark that destroys left-handed power (disadvantage).

And after tallying that up, it might be that Roger Maris's feat impresses you more. If so, there would be some significance in passing 61 home runs. There isn't anything wrong with that. If Chris Davis is more impressed with 61 homers and Maris, that's his prerogative.

Recognizing Bonds's record as legitimate doesn't make someone a deluded Internet yahoo, though, It's just someone tallying up the context differently. And when the crusaders start arguing that the only way to appreciate the home-run record is to throw Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire out the window, well, that doesn't make a lick of sense. Baseball records have always been stuffed with context. You don't get to eliminate a handful because things got retroactively uncomfortable for you.

Believe that Bonds is the most impressive of the lot, or believe that Maris's feat was more impressive. Stick with your guns with Ruth and 154 games, or be like me and assume that Matt Williams was going to hit 85 until the strike hit in '94. Just don't argue that others don't have the right to evaluate context on their own. And don't argue that it's wrong to consider someone who holds the single-season home-run record to be the player who actually holds the single-season home-run record.

The Internet yahoos aren't crazy. They just know how to count. And once they count to 73, then everyone can start arguing again. I'm not sure there's a right answer after that, and that's what makes this stuff fun.

For much more about Chris Davis and the O's, please visit SB Nation's Camden Chat.

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