As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It was 1998, impossibly 24 years ago now. As summer charged into fall, the days would start early – had to. With a long commute and work day, it was imperative to clock in just after the sun turned night into day. Things were going to happen in the night – big things, historic things, things I’d be writing about nearly a quarter-century later – that could not be missed. This being a time long before recorded, instant-advancing programming, my derriere had to be on the couch, in front of the television by 7 p.m. – no compromise.
The daily ritual that September and early October looked something like this. An alarm clock would start the day with a piercing pulse that hurt – psychologically and physically. In desperate need of smelling salts and a standing eight count, I would stumble into the shower semi-conscious. The cobwebs would clear as I shuffled to my truck. Did I shave? Did I use both soap and shampoo? Did I use soap on my head and shampoo on my body? Whatever – efficiency mattered more than hygiene.
I would exit the driveway by six, rip through the gears while hauling down Route 4 and report to work by seven. This would ensure an exit by 5 p.m. and a return home an hour later – just enough time to eat, select a beer and land punctually on that aforementioned couch. The day would end deep into the night and sometimes into the next morning. Then insufficient sleep. Then that obnoxious alarm…again.
It was a fabulous grind.
The carrot this rabbit was chasing was baseball history. Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs were conducting an epic assault on Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. Every night baseball history was under siege, then being re-written. By September 8, McGwire had broken the record with his 62nd home run; he ended the season with 70. Sosa was neck-and-neck with McGwire down the stretch and finished a close second in this magical run with 66.
We know now that it was too good to be…natural.
Maris hit 61 bombs in 1961 to best Babe Ruth’s 1927 record of 60. By 1998, Maris’s record had stood several seasons longer than Ruth’s and had, until the late 1990s, never been threatened. In fact, until 1997, no major leaguer had hit more than 52 home runs since George Foster recorded that number in 1977. Then everything changed. Between 1997 and 2001, McGwire, Sosa and Barry Bonds alone recorded seven seasons of 58 or more homers. Peak ridiculousness arrived in 2001, when Bonds, at age 36 and having never hit more than 49 home runs in a season, launched 73. Soon enough, the disgusting realities of the steroid error – an abject failure of the sport – claimed all innocence.
Eventually Aaron Judge, circa 2022, was going to happen – a guy having a spectacular season who threatened Roger Maris’s record – and, with it, so would a forced confrontation with baseball’s willful and pathetic tarnishing of its most cherished records. Judge hit 62 home runs this season, officially setting a new American League record; but for many purists (and those for whom character matters), Judge is now the all-time single-season home run king.
That it is unclear how to judge Judge, that his march to 62 was more “meh” than a captivating experience rivaling 1998, that I lost no sleep or adhered to no strict routine to catch his at bats, is the consequence of a sport and a generation of athletes that lost all ethical mooring. The steroid era eviscerated the statistical baseline, cheated history, disrespected players of the past, undermined players of the present and future, and spoiled the experience for fans. The best that can be said of bandits like Bonds, McGwire and Sosa, and complicit, money-drunk executives and owners, is this: theirs is a cautionary tale of the inescapable permanence of ethical compromise, of silence in the face of perversion, and of personal and institutional dishonor.
For everything Judge did right this summer, his incredible accomplishment was unfairly minimized by a sport that once did so much unforgivably wrong.