Remember Home Run Chases?
Christian Yelich has hit 21 home runs through 49 games. Cody Bellinger has hit 20 through 53.
You've probably heard the story a million times by now. Baseball was in a rut in the mid-90's. A players' strike occurred in '94, which resulted in no postseason being played for the first time since 1904 (sadly, this was likely the Montreal Expos' best chance at a deep playoff run). Baseball players and fans were downtrodden and disenchanted as a result of the work stoppage. MLB needed a pick-me-up, a jolt of lightning to get people excited about America's pastime once again.
This jolt came in the form of an all-out assault on the record books, specifically the home run benchmarks. Mark McGwire hit 70 round-trippers in 1998. Barry Bonds mashed 73 just three years later, and wound up setting the career mark with 762. Slammin' Sammy Sosa, the perpetual maid of honor when it comes to single-season home run records, hit 66, 63, and 64 in '98,'99, and '01, respectively. Players like this, like it or not, busted MLB out of its slump.
Alas, we soon learned of the man behind the curtain. Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa's records have all been smeared by PED allegations, at least in the court of public opinion. These men account for the six highest single-season home run totals, leaving Roger Maris's 61 in '61 at #7. Do PED scandals once again make 61 the number to beat? Not officially. Not in Cooperstown.
But many would still say yes.
Baseballs have been flying out of ballparks at an unprecedented rate over the past few years. A newfangled approach to hitting involving players launching more and more balls into the air, coupled with an *alleged* juiced baseball have made the dinger more common than ever before. Interestingly though, this hasn't really correlated to higher single-season totals.
Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 bombs in 2017, on his way to an NL MVP award. However, only one AL player has hit over 50 home runs in the last four seasons (Aaron Judge hit 52 in '17). In the NL, Stanton's 59 stands alone as the one 50+ home run year over the same time span. Last season, no one in the NL reached 40. The rising tide has risen all ships, as shown by the record-breaking league-wide home run totals. But for some reason, no single ship has been able to elevate to historic levels.
This season might be different.
So far in 2019, Christian Yelich has hit 21 home runs through 49 games. Cody Bellinger has hit 20 through 53. Through Roger Maris's first 49 games in 1961, he sat at 17 bombs. He had 18 through 53 games.
Can we as fans still get behind something like this? The summers of the late 90's and early 2000's meant checking the box scores every morning to see if Sosa, Bonds, and/or McGwire had gone deep the night before. Occasionally, a Ken Griffey Jr. or a Luis Gonzalez would make a guest appearance on the home run tracker, further enticing the casual baseball fan to follow along. This is, objectively, good for baseball. So why does it seem like we don't really care about this phenomenon anymore?
Perhaps these muscles have atrophied for us fans.
Up until the last month or so of the season, Giancarlo Stanton didn't get much pub for his incredible 2017. If we're going with Maris as having the true, untainted record, he fell just short at 59. Relative to the national attention garnered by the home run chases of old, Stanton's MVP-season came and went pretty quietly. That sucks.
I get it, though. Not long ago, we were duped into believing in the Paul Bunyan-like exploits of the game's most prodigious power hitters. Since then, much ink has been spilt over how exactly they were able to get an edge over their competition. I'm not here to debate how to quantify the boost PEDs provide. Regardless of what they do or how they do it, these drugs have made it tough for baseball fans to get behind a home run chase, even when one is staring them in the face.
Nevertheless, I think it's time to move on.
Yelich and Bellinger deserve your attention. Their presence on the national stage is largely due to their overall game, which is deserved. However, a run at 61 home runs would be tremendously exciting for everyone interested, even remotely, in the sport of baseball, a sport that values records like no other. Let's bring back the home run tracker. I want a side-by-side graphic telling me how many home runs Bellinger and Yelich have compared to how many Maris had at this point in 1961, when he and Mickey Mantle went after Babe Ruth's hallowed 60 number. That's fun. When's the last time record-breaking was a thing in MLB? Been a while, I'd say, and it would be happening at the perfect time too!
The wound has scabbed, baseball fans. It's time for a good ol' fashioned home run chase.