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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 3, 2009 at 10:33 PM

Albert Pujols and the race to be the legitimate* home-run king

albertbig.jpg

*by legitimate, I mean as far as we know, right now. Pujols has passed every drug test, as far as we know. And Joe Posnanski seems to believe he’s clean.

Albert Pujols hits his 31st home run tonight (Friday). You might have noticed he is having an astonishing season, even by his standards. Teams go into games against the Cardinals with one game plan: Don’t let Albert beat us. And yet he does. He’s hitting .336. His on-base percentage is .460. It’s not quite Barry Bonds, circa 2001-04, but it’s the closest thing we’ve seen since then.

Pujols is now on pace to hit 62 home runs. Think real hard, and you’ll remember when that used to be a magic number in baseball. That was the number that sluggers strived to reach, unsuccessfully, for more than three decades, after Roger Maris set the home-run record with 61* in ’61. That theoretical asterisk, for playing in more games than Babe Ruth when Ruth hit 60, seems quaint now that asterisks imply much more insidious crimes.

Maris’s 61 went down, and went down hard, in 1998, of course. Mark McGwire reached No. 62 on a September night that at the time I considered the most exciting baseball event I had ever witnessed.

I don’t think that any more.

McGwire, of course, didn’t stop at 62. He ended up with 70, while Sammy Sosa, his noble (so we thought) rival, hit 66. Maris’s achievement faded into oblivion, more so when McGwire hit 65 in 1999,, and Sosa hit 63 in 1999 and 64 in 2001. Barry Bonds left them all in the dust with 73 in 2001, a comically absurd total that remains as a blinking neon symbol of the wretched excess of the steroids era.

Six separate seasons in which 62 has been reached and surpassed, and now all of them are tainted. There is a growing movement, in fact, to regard Maris’s 61 in ’61 as the “legitimate” home run record.

Which brings us back to Pujols,and his remarkable first half. He’s halfway to beating Maris, in a city that we can only hope is not quite as naive as it was 11 years ago, when McGwire made his run. None of us should be, for that matter.

And yet this is, finally, a home-run race to savor — perhaps not with the same giddy, unbridled enthusiasm of a decade ago, but with keen anticipation and full respect for Pujols’s skills. Unless we’re given reason not to, which other than deeply imbedded cynicism, we have not.

It’s shaping up as the first home-run race of the testing era. Let’s all enjoy it…and hope we don’t regret it.

(Associated Press photo)

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