Major League Baseball's suspension of 13 players in its most recent attempt to address the use of performance-enhancing drugs, including an unprecedented 211-game suspension of its highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, is a welcome sign that the game is serious about re-establishing the legitimacy of player accomplishments. The importance of such vigilance cannot be overestimated in a game where statistical comparison serves as a generational bond, and the integrity of those statistics is the adhesive that gives meaning to the experiences shared across time that are the game's narrative. That magical capacity of the game to link generations was vividly on display one night in Baltimore during the fabled 1961 season.
We went to Memorial Stadium that September on a school night to be witness to what was known as "the chase." There were just 11 games left in the season when the Yankees arrived in Baltimore for a four-game series, and Roger Maris had amassed a staggering 58 home runs. Only three players in history had ever hit that many in a single season: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg. Ruth was the undisputed home run champion, having hit 59 in 1921 and reached the unthinkable plateau of 60 in 1927. Maris was just 26 years old, and, as the long season wore on, suffered through the agonizing stress brought on by the unremitting media attention given to his pursuit of the game's most hallowed record held by 20th century America's most beloved sports hero.
Maris had failed to homer in either game of the series-opening double-header, and we settled into our seats for the third game in anticipation of perhaps being part of history. He had lined out to right field in his first at bat, but in the third inning, his now-familiar swing fully engaged a Milt Pappas pitch and sent it high into the air. There was little doubt about the result from the instant Maris made contact. His 59th home run sailed over the high green wall and into the right field stands. We had witnessed and shared a golden moment in a truly magical season.
Six days later, we watched on television as Maris hit his 60th home run in New York against Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher. He would, of course, hit his 61st on the season's final game. His detractors would assert that he had the advantage of having played in baseball's first expansion season, with eight more games and a pitching talent pool arguably depleted by the addition of two teams. But it is abundantly clear that Roger Maris had attained an athletic accomplishment that was nothing short of amazing and worthy of nothing less than respectful admiration. The same cannot be said for those who have since challenged and surpassed his record.
In the history of baseball, only 26 players have hit 50 or more home runs in a season, and those 26 have done so a combined 42 times, 18 of which occurred during the 75 seasons from 1920 to 1994. The remaining 24 occurred in just 13 seasons, from 1995 to 2007. It is no coincidence that this was the height of the PED era, and many of these totals preceded effective testing. Indeed, the six greatest single-season home run totals, all attained by just three players (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), occurred in a span of only four seasons, from 1998 to 2001. It is also no coincidence that baseball was without a commissioner for six years following Faye Vincent's resignation in 1992, and it was during this leadership vacuum that players' bodies began to bulk up along with their home run totals.
In fact, baseball was, for far too long, utterly negligent in its protection of the integrity of the game's records. Caught up in the financial rewards generated by the farce that was the McGwire-Sosa home run race of 1998, the owners and players turned a blind eye to a cancer that was rendering meaningless its most cherished asset — the magnificent performances of the players in an unfathomably difficult and demanding sport. The problem that baseball had brought on itself was simply that one could no longer tell which accomplishments were truly remarkable and which were the products of pharmaceutical enhancement.
This sad history makes all players suspect and subjects each achievement to uncertainty. Baseball should be fully celebrating the achievements of its young stars instead of allowing those achievements to be subject to even the slightest suspicion. Although a more rigorous testing program has helped clean up the game, the drug industry is always busy trying to stay a step ahead of the testing protocols. When players, with the financial means to seek the best medical care, are visiting a so-called anti-aging clinic in Florida run by a guy with no legitimate medical training, it is evident that the only way the sport can cleanse itself is to make the penalty for PED use so severe that it is not worth the risk. When Melky Cabrera is suspended for 50 games, and then immediately signs a two- year contract for $8 million per season, it is apparent that the penalties are not a meaningful deterrent.
The latest suspensions are a hopeful effort in the cause of baseball regaining its glory. If the owners and players commit to a program of sufficient penalties that will fundamentally eradicate this stain on the game, they have the potential to reap the benefits of being part of a new golden age, where players' accomplishments are celebrated and admired in the shared joy that this beautiful game is so capable of bestowing on its fans. And there can again be truly magical nights like the one we experienced in September 1961.