It has already been demonstrated, beyond a doubt, that for a man to hit at least 60 home runs in a major league baseball season, he must be either a Baltimore reform school alum who washes down hot dogs with tankards of beer or a man so obsessed with the pursuit of that mark that his hair falls out in clumps during the month of September.
The balding Roger Maris hit 61 homers for the New York Yankees in 1961, 34 years after the Babe had stroked 60 for the Yanks, and in the nearly 30 years since then no one has come close to matching Maris's record. No American Leaguer has hit as many as 50 since '61, an absurdly anomalous year in which the Yankees' Mickey Mantle slammed 54 homers and Detroit's Norm Cash, lifetime batting average .271, led the majors with a .361 mark. In the National League, the last man to hit 50 was the Cincinnati Reds' George Foster, who had 52 in '77 with one of the best offensive lineups of all time hitting around him. Besides Foster, over the past 40 years only Willie Mays—with 51 in 1955 and 52 in '65—has hit more than 49 homers in the senior circuit.
Fifty home runs? Reggie couldn't do it, nor could Aaron, McCovey, Killebrew, Howard, Schmidt or Frank Robinson. And no one in the current crop of pretenders will do it either. Last year's home run leader in the American League was the Toronto Blue Jays' Fred McGriff, who wowed us with 36. That's real tiny. In fact, the Dodgers will return to Brooklyn before any player so much as duplicates the feat of the Chicago Cubs' Andre Dawson and the Oakland A's Mark McGwire in 1987, when each hit 49.
That's the magic number these days. Not 61. Not 60. But 49. Dawson is 36, too old ever to hit 49 again, and McGwire got his 49 in his rookie year, before the pitchers figured him out, and with a lot of good batters on either side of him. Trade McGwire to the Yankees, where everyone is struggling, and we would see him in Columbus in a year.
August 5, 1990
Jose Canseco, McGwire's teammate, is the supposed heir to the Ruthian legend, but he remains a mythological creature, a muscle-bound Minotaur. Canseco led the American League with 42 home runs in 1988. Very big deal. Ever since, he has been a frequent visitor to the training room. Occasionally he goes on a rampage-he has eight homers in his last 12 games through Sunday—but Canseco simply has too many pullable muscles. Like one of those exotic cars he collects, he's too apt to break down, throw a rod, burn a valve and park himself in the whirlpool for a month.
If Canseco somehow survives the muscle pulls, tears and sprains, money will bring him down, as it will surely bring down the New York Mets' Darryl Strawberry, of whom teammate Keith Hernandez said two years ago, "I'm getting tired of waiting for Darryl to reach his potential." Strawberry is hot right now too, and between at bats he tells us that he wants a contract as lucrative as Canseco's new five-year, $23.5 million deal. Give Straw a five-year, $25 million deal, and he will hit 20 home runs a year for the duration of it. Flat guaranteed. Argentina will land a soccer team on the moon before Canseco or Strawberry hits 50 home runs in a year.
Yet the dream persists. USA Today, noting that Detroit's Cecil Fielder had 28 homers at the All-Star break, observed, "He has a chance of challenging Roger Maris's single-season mark of 61 home runs...." Fat chance.
There are any number of reasons why 50 is the new Everest of baseball. Some of the reasons are obvious, and some are as elusive as Strawberry's potential. They include:
•Relief pitchers. The days of the brilliant short reliever—the era of Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter—didn't really begin until the 1970s. Both Ruth and Maris hit a ton of homers off tired starters.
•Jet lag. Ruth never suffered from it—he never had to travel west of St. Louis—and in 1961 there was only one West Coast team in the American League, the expansion Angels. It's impossible to hit a home run today if your body thinks it's yesterday.
•Long-term contracts. They kill hunger. A man with a five-year, $23.5 million deal has no reason to get out of the whirlpool.
•Media pressure. Players are endlessly distracted by hype. Everywhere they turn, there are TV cameras looking at them, or microphones up their noses, or pads and pencils in their faces.
•Labor disputes. Every few years, you can count on players and management to contrive to shorten the season through a strike or lockout.
•Weightlifting. Weights are the bane of baseball, a game of grace and finesse. Did Aaron, the alltime home run king, go around bragging about his bench press or his French curl?
•No fishing. Ted Williams practiced hand-eye coordination by fly-fishing in his spare time. Power hitters don't fish anymore. They eat sushi and watch The Young and the Restless.
Better get used to it. The 60-homer season is but a dim memory, and the 50-homer season is surely history as well.