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It’s time to end the home run record culture war

Sadly, though, this may be an information war fought for decades to come.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, you know where this article is going. Before I even type 10 words, I have telepathically entered your mind and fired off a series of neurons that likely elicit what could only be described as a Pavlovian response, by simply saying the words: “Aaron Judge, Barry Bonds.” You already have a pre-formed opinion about that sequence of words that can fall into a very predictable bucket.

As anyone with cable service, a newspaper, an internet connection, or a pulse knows, Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris for the American League single-season home run record at 61. Eight days elapsed before he walked the historic path from 60 to 61, a week-long affair of national television network cut-ins — essentially unheard of for baseball in 2022 — and the basically unspoken assumption that the elders of sports media were treating this as the de facto, but not the de jure, breaking of the home run record.

After Judge finally hit the mark, now-household name Roger Maris Jr. voiced a sentiment that was all-too-common based on that unspoken assumption. Speaking to The Athletic, Maris Jr. said, “I think baseball needs to look at the records and I think baseball should do something,” speaking of course of the nature of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds’ breaking of the record.

The usual suspects have certainly chimed in. Jon Heyman, writing in the New York Post, wrote that “Bonds’ stats, while extraordinary, are fake news.” Rolling Stone posted the much-lambasted-headline: “Aaron Judge Ties the Real Home Run Record.” Maris Jr., to put it lightly, has an understandable personal stake in this debate. You don’t name your hunting and fishing apparel store “61 Outfitters” if that wasn’t literally part of your identity. I recommend you read this interview I did with Mickey Mantle’s sons David and Danny to see what I mean.

To everyone else in the world: sorry, get over it. The fact is that this isn’t your parent and this isn’t literally what your name is or who your family identifies with. What this is is a figment of identity, an ephemeral Oort cloud of resentment that you have in place of your soul. You have an imagined image of a fake past in which players did not, say, do amphetamines and cocaine constantly and inject themselves with every quack doctor’s serum into their butt, and you have taken that to be a representation of your own identity. You have taken the myth-making that baseball made for itself (ie: reporters just didn’t write anything bad about players), and turned it into a lived reality. For people like that, the Judge chase will unfortunately be forever seen as some Bourbon Restoration of good manners and fair play.

You could obviously litigate why that is wrong, bit-for-bit, but I would probably waste a good 500 words that I don’t have here. We know the owners and Bud Selig were aware and tacitly condoned; we know that Bonds never hits 73 without performance-enhancing drugs but was still one of the greatest ever anyway; we know that people actually enjoyed it in the moment.

This gets us to the opposite side of the steroid era picket fence. A lot has changed in the demographics of baseball viewers. Although older viewers certainly predominate, millennials have become the largest generation and have gotten older themselves, and while it is the case that the market share is shrinking, again, the biggest existing generation is still going to have a glut of baseball fans. We see Roman ads now, not Viagra.

These fans actually have positive — not negative — memories of these home run chases as formative experiences in their young adulthood. Peruse social media and you’ll see sentiments not unlike these:

This is sort of the understandable millennial line, that 73 is affirmatively the “real” record, that sports media’s focus on 61 is outsized considering it isn’t the real record, and an overall feeling that the aforementioned elder sports media folks are trying to, in a way, take those positive memories away or tarnish them in some way.

I am going to paint a very red line here and say that I am not equating these two ideological positions. One is clearly the smarter one (the latter), and the former has twisted itself into such grotesque knots to make this home run chase about themselves and, again, their own resentments that it sometimes sickens me that I find myself clapping at the same time as them.

Yet I still think, generally, such romanticizing is still an identarian way of seeing the world. Seeing the ‘98 home run chase or Bonds’ peak, was not just a “Wow, glad I saw that sports moment” kind of thing but an integral part of their identity. This isn’t an insult to those I’ve used as examples, but it’s just something I find interesting. I mean, it’s not a shock that millennials (and Gen X) are the same generation where you have Star Wars, Jurassic Park, shoved down our throats. “IP” has become the buzzword of the day, because corporations have generally been successful in replacing community, true identity, and political formations with associations to celebrities, brands, franchises, characters, and athletes. Your fate is tied to their fate.

I waited 886 words to say that Aaron Judge is having one of the best offensive seasons since World War II, and isn’t that odd? Because your brain is so busy firing off those neurons and sorting the correct opinion to blurt out (myself literally included), you totally forget that you’re actually looking at something really cool and you should just shut up and have fun with it. A New York Yankee on a division-winning team tied Roger Maris while making a run at the AL MVP and Triple Crown in the process of posting an 11-WAR season. Maybe, just maybe, that’s just cool and that’s the end of it.

No, Americans are unfortunately doomed to the virtual reality simulator that we’re in. A category of people will be shouting that Aaron Judge is the real home run recordholder until they die, and an entire generation will trip over themselves to say “Well, erm, actually the real record is 73 home runs by Barry Bonds, didn’t you know that, huh huh” fast enough. Yes, those people are obtuse. Yes, Barry Bonds is the “real” recordholder. I also don’t care, so I’m going to go crack open a beer and watch dingers.