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Chris Davis Is Wrong About Who Holds the Home Run Record

Chris Davis did not win last night’s Home Run Derby—¡Felicidades, Yoenis Céspedes!—but the Baltimore Orioles first baseman who will bat clean-up for the American League in tonight’s All-Star Game is engaged in an actual, real-life home run derby. His 37 home runs tie him for the pre-All Star break American League record with Reggie Jackson (in 1969, Mr. October was more like Mr. June), and he is on pace to end the season with 62. That figure would be the seventh-most home runs ever hit in a single season.

But, of course, that’s a little cute to say.

The all-time record for home runs in a single season, set by Barry Bonds in 2001, is 73. But to many, 61—the number Roger Maris hit in 1961—is the totemic number. The three players who surpassed it a collective seven times—Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa, all in 1998, 1999, or 2001—all did so, it is widely believed (and in McGwire’s case, it is actually acknowledged by him), while using banned performance-enhancing substances.

So many have taken the attitude that in Davis’s pursuit of the “record,” 62 is the magic number, because to describe the (allegedly) PED-enhanced figures as be-asterisked would be an understatement. “He’d have to double his total to break Barry Bonds’s record of 73,” writes ESPN, “but he’s well within range of Roger Maris’s mark of 61—a record many believe remains legitimate, considering Bonds’s alleged connection with performance-enhancing drugs.” Chimes in Business Insider, “Davis is on pace for a number only Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa have reached. And unlike the the Three Slugging Stooges of the Steroid Era, Davis is doing this without the help of banned performance enhancers.”

And then there’s Davis himself. On Monday, he said, “In my opinion, 61 is the record, and I think most fans agree with me about that.” Earlier this season, he told the "Mike & Mike" radio show that Maris’ is the true record: “He was the last guy to do it clean. There’s a lot of things that have been said about the guys who have come after him and have achieved the record, but I think as far as the fans are concerned they still view Maris as being the all-time home run record [holder] and I think you have to. There’s no doubt that Barry [Bonds] and Mark [McGwire] and any of those guys had ridiculous seasons and had some great years, but I think when you get to the root of the record, I still think it’s Roger Maris.”

Yeah … no. Here’s a quiz: When was Maris’s 61 considered the official record? The answer isn’t October 1st, 1961, when he hit his 61st in the last game of the season. It was actually not until 30 years later that the major leagues’ committee for statistical accuracy ruled Maris’ record totally legitimate. Before, there had been a notation—a fabled (and actually nonexistent) asterisk, as in the made-for-TV movie 61*—stipulating that because Maris’s record required the full 162 games of the 1961 season, whereas Babe Ruth had slammed 60 in 1927’s 154-game season, it was not crystal-clear who the true record-holder was.1

There are countless factors that could monkey with home run numbers. For example, the strike zone has evolved, both formally and informally, numerous times: It was unusually small (and therefore friendly to hitters) in the late ‘90s, which undoubtedly also aided McGwire and Sosa; in recent years, it has been informally enlarged, which helps explain why Major League Baseball is on pace for its highest strikeout rate ever (this season, nearly one in five at-bats has resulted in a strikeout). The advent of large bullpens, more teams, and interleague play means that players cannot trust always to face one of only several dozen pitchers during each at-bat. New training regimens and (licit) nutritional supplements means they can bulk up as they never did before. And so on.

Different eras and different circumstances produce different games, which in turn produce different sorts of records. Football and basketball have learned this. Blockbuster seasons for quarterbacks are not treated as proof that Tom Brady is better than Johnny Unitas, but as proof that the sport has changed

Baseball—simple, pastoral, frequently sports fans’ first love—has always treasured its sense of continuity as few other pastimes do, and this sense of continuity is most easily expressed through statistics and records. But this sense has sometimes curdled into an anal obsession (I was not making up the “major leagues’ committee for statistical accuracy”). Baseball fans should ditch their adolescent, Field of Dreams-esque sentimentality and join the rest of us moderns. Chris Davis may hit 62—or 60, or 64—home runs while playing with a large strike zone in a great division in the year 2013. There is more than enough to root for there.

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  1. In fact, 1961 was the very first season with 162 games, which is how many they play today.