Stanton chasing baseball immortals
Like “Bullitt” and “The French Connection,” the 2017 Major League Baseball season may be remembered for a chase scene.
Giancarlo Stanton, a right-handed slugger with the Miami Marlins, is working on such a script. Six home runs in the last week gave Stanton 50 for the season, the most by anyone since Baltimore’s Chris Davis hit 53 in 2013. You’re entitled to wonder: Can he hit 60?
Although two men have hit
70 in a season, the 60 home-run club is the Skull and Bones of baseball, an exclusive society reached by some only to find their reputations sullied.
Babe Ruth, as he did so often in an unparalleled career, got there first. Bettering by one his record 59 of 1921, Ruth hit No.
60 on the final day of the 1927 season for the Murderer’s Row Yankees. (Lou Gehrig, batting behind Ruth and destined to remain in his shadow until stricken by a fatal disease, twice hit 49 in a season.)
Ruth’s record stood for 34 years until broken by another Yankee, although not the one generally expected. Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961, an expansion year (two new teams in each league) in which the quality of big-league pitching was diluted. Mickey Mantle set a personal record with 54 before injuries derailed his quest of Ruth’s record. In the summer of the Berlin Wall, the M and M Boys’ chase to 60 captivated millions. Barry Pepper portrayed Maris in Billy Crystal’s movie tribute, *61.
A couple of things about Maris’ record: It lasted longer
(37 years) than Ruth’s record and (like Ruth’s) came in behalf of a pennant-winning world champion. Maris never came close to 60 again, but how could it be a fluke season when he was American League MVP the previous year? And yet, like golfer Jack Fleck for snatching a U.S. Open from Ben Hogan, the home-run record became a millstone for Maris to carry. Cardinal fans remember No. 9 for solid service on two National League pennant winners late in his career. Cancer, which took Ruth at 53, claimed Maris at 51.
Baseball had to wait until
1998 for a real home-run chase, the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire vs. the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa. McGwire tied Maris’ mark on Labor Day, connecting off Mike Morgan, after which more than one headline writer borrowed the title of a Michael Moore movie, “Roger and Me.” With Maris’ family in
the stands at Busch Stadium and Sosa in the field, clapping, McGwire hit No. 62 off the Cubs’ Steve Trachsel on Tuesday, Sept. 8, a glorious moment for the sport.
McGwire charted new territory on closing day when he hit No. 70 off Montreal’s Carl Pavano. Sosa tied and surpassed Maris’ record with two home runs against Milwaukee Sept. 13, finishing with 66, then the second-highest total ever. Sosa, his team making the playoffs, was named National League MVP but Sports Illustrated got it right naming McGwire and Sosa Sportsmen of the Year for their epic chase.
Though the only three-time member of the 60 club, Sosa never topped the charts for a single season. He hit 63 to McGwire’s 65 in 1999 and 64 to Barry Bonds’ record 73 in 2001. Carl Lewis can relate, winning Olympic gold in the long jump four times but never resting his head for one night with the world record.
Bonds holds both single-season and career records (762) in home runs, although one is permitted not to take those truths as self-evident. Bonds, McGwire and Sosa, all long since retired, are seen as poster children of the steroid era in Major League Baseball. Roger Clemens, tarnished with the same brush, heads the pitching staff.
Whether the Baseball Hall of Fame is better without them, along with Pete Rose, as it is presently constituted, is subject to endless debate. It says here, but not too loudly, that baseball is penalizing those it deemed heroes for restoring interest in the sport after the strike-shortened 1994 season prompted the first World Series cancellation in 90 years.
Stanton, as was mentioned on ESPN’s “PTI” program Monday, can become the sixth MLB player to hit 60 home runs in a season and “only the third not under steroid suspicion.” Unlike Mantle to Maris and Sosa to McGwire, Stanton is flying solo. The Yankees’ Aaron Judge, second with 37, “isn’t in the same neighborhood, block or street,” says the sports network’s Rachel Nichols.
Judge has been struggling to hit the long ball for more than a month since winning the Home Run Derby in Stanton’s ballpark. Though his Marlins have nothing to play for in September, every Stanton plate appearance will have people crunching numbers for a while. And since Bonds is the one being chased, they’ll be asking: Can he hit 74?