TIM DAHLBERG,AP Sports Columnist
The mark is 61, no matter what the record books say.
Roger Maris is the single-season home run champion, regardless of how many home runs Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa managed to hit. He will be until someone deposits No. 62 over a fence and then does something even more difficult by convincing us that it was done without the benefit of modern chemistry.
That someone could be Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles. He has 45 home runs with 38 games left, and is on a pace to threaten the record if not break it.
It won’t be easy, and the pressure will mount with each at-bat. Maris himself started losing hair in clumps as he chased the mark of 60 held by Babe Ruth a half century ago, enduring hate mail and death threats along the way.
At least Davis has some control over what happens on the field. He doesn’t when it comes to the court of public opinion.
If he hits a lot of home runs he must be juiced. Period, end of story. That’s how we look at sluggers now, because what we saw before was for the most part a big lie.
It may not be fair to Davis, but that’s the world we live. Presumed guilty until proven innocent, and don’t bother with the protests of that innocence. We’ve heard them before so many times, that even the lies of Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun can’t shock us anymore.
Never mind that Davis has always shown great power and has never, as far as we know, tested positive for anything that might increase that power. Never mind that he himself considers the single season record to be 61, or that he has handled the inevitable questions about where his power comes from directly and without the feigned outrage we’ve seen from others.
“I’ve got nothing to hide,” Davis said at the All-Star game last month. “I want people to know that. I want people to feel like they can get behind me.”
If only it was that easy. If only we could all find a way to believe once again.
It would be a joyful way to finish off a season, must-see TV every night for any baseball fan. It would also be a perfect antidote to a season when the biggest drug scandal went down, and a year when some of the greatest players of their time were denied entry into the Hall of Fame.
But we remember Rafael Palmeiro shaking his finger before Congress and declaring he had never taken steroids. We’ve read transcripts of Bonds saying he believed the clear and the cream were just flaxseed oil. We fell for Sosa and McGwire and their fabricated summer of peace, love and home runs.
Believe that someone clean can break the home run record? Sure, and don’t forget to make sure you leave the Easter Bunny a snack before heading to the ballpark.
If it’s any consolation to Davis, he’s not the only one we find ourselves wondering about. Miguel Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to win the triple crown last year and is in the running for it again this year. He does things so astonishing that Detroit manager Jim Leyland says he is the best right-handed hitter he has ever seen (Bonds was listed as Leyland’s best lefty).
No one has suggested he is dirty, and there’s no evidence that he is. But do you want to risk $99.95 buying his jersey and your time cheering him on when most of the sluggers before him were all putting on a charade?
And then there’s Albert Pujols, who has largely stayed out of the performance enhancing drugs discussion despite his dominant numbers over the last decade. Pujols says he plans to take legal action against former Cardinal Jack Clark for saying on a radio show that Pujols had taken PEDs.
Let’s hope Pujols follows through on his threat to sue. Assuming he’s always been clean he has nothing to lose in a lawsuit and everything to gain. His reputation would be upheld, his status as one of the game’s greats would be cemented, and he can go back to worrying about how to live up to the next eight years on his contract with the Los Angeles Angels.
But lawsuits can be a tricky thing. Does Pujols want an opposing attorney dissecting everything he’s done in his career and everything he’s ever put in his body? Is he so sure of the rightness of his cause that he will risk the kind of scrutiny he’s never seen?
Again, it’s not fair. Pujols shouldn’t have to be defending himself simply because he’s a big hitter. It’s guilt by association because, hey, everyone must be guilty.
That includes Davis, who has already hit 12 more home runs this year than he did all of last season. The closer he gets to the record the more speculation there will be, pressure that Maris didn’t have to deal with when he broke the mark Ruth set in 1927.
It’s not the best time to be chasing one of the game’s most hallowed records. But there will be a time when everyone will have to move on or just give up on the game itself.
About all we can do now is hope that Davis is one of the rare ones who can actually be believed.
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