Chris Davis went into the All-Star break with 37 home runs in 96 team games, putting him on a 62-homer pace if he can keep it up. The prospect of a current player beating Roger Maris's historic 61-homer season, of course, has folks abuzz with discussion of the late-90s/early-00s binge of record-setting home run seasons, and the certainty that they were all fueled by steroids. Folks from media pundits to Davis himself have pontificated that 62 home runs in 2013 would represent a "clean" home run record, a real home run record for modern times. But while 62 Davis bombs might be a nice palette cleanser for baseball fandom, it wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- be anything more in the record books than the AL record.
When people start to cast a pall on the late 1990s, they've taken to the term "performance-enhancing drugs." The thing is, no one has a problem with baseball players using drugs to enhance their on-field performance. From caffeine to ibuprofen to antibiotics to cortisone to platelet-rich plasma, baseball fans, media pundits and congressmen have no problem with players using drugs to supplement their health, strength, or focus, and improve their performance on the field over what they could attain naturally. They have a problem with anabolic steroids and human growth hormones.
This completely arbitrary distinction reflects a broader hypocrisy in our nation's viewpoints on the use of subtances to alter mind and body. America is a country where puritanism and prohibition aren't all that far in our rearview mirror. This is a country where you can buy cigarettes and alcohol at the corner store, but get arrested and obtain a criminal record for possessing a token amount of marijuana. It's a country where parents are criminally prosecuted for trying to treat a child's curable malady with nothing but prayer, but where the pharmaceutical companies who develop life-saving drugs faster than any others in the world are broadly viewed with distrust and skepticism.
So it's not at all surprising that an athlete with a sore or slightly torn muscle would be praised for his toughness if he took a cortisone shot to numb the pain, play through it and risk worsening his injury, but would be suspended for using human growth hormone under the supervision of a physician to actually heal the torn muscle -- a medically accepted use of HGH for anyone on earth except a professional athlete. This example is the one and only area of life I know of in America where medical professionals are explicitly barred from taking the best course of action to cure an injury, and even to actively contribute to its worsening, arguably a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. If you don't believe this, look at cases like Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Kemp, who've played through or attempted to surgically repair shoulder muscles and seen their bodies rapidly decline as a result -- as compared to that of Andy Pettitte, who admitted to using HGH to recover from an elbow injury -- again, the medically accepted use of HGH. Zimmerman and Kemp have done themselves and their teams a disservice in following a misguided policy, whereas Pettitte has accepted demonization in following medical protocol and making his way back to continue a long and productive career.
Fans who demonize steroid and hormone users, and who want to wipe their records from the books, primarily view it as an issue of fairness. The steroid-fueled homers of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, they say, are unfair to the records of Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. Make no mistake, Bonds, McGwire and Sosa used anabolic steroids and/or HGH. No one is disputing that. You know what else they used that Ruth and Maris didn't have? Ibuprofen. You don't think an cheap, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug with virtually no side effects helps a modern player work through the bumps and bruises of a 162-game grind? Maris and Ruth didn't have that -- if they were banged up, their performance simply suffered. Where's the fairness in that? Why don't we ban ibuprofen usage from modern clubhouses for lending players an unfair advantage over their historical counterparts? Why don't all post-1974 records get an Advil asterisk?
I'm not saying baseball should return to the wild-west, anything-goes days of the 1990s. For starters, it's pretty clear from the early physical breakdowns of many of those players that they were using steroids and hormones well beyond their medically accepted uses, which is a poor thing for a league to turn a blind eye to. But it would be fine with me to allow medically prescribed uses of steroids and hormones, just like any other prescription drug. Maybe Rocco Baldelli could have had the career he was destined for if he'd been allowed to use a prescribed, appropriately-dosed steroid to address his muscular disorder. Perhaps Zimmerman and Kemp wouldn't be addressing obvious continued shoulder problems if their treatment regimens could be combined with HGH as administered by a doctor. Instead of demonizing a couple drugs as per se evil and viewing all others as per se acceptable, baseball medicine should look at all drugs just as real medicine does.
How does this all get back to Chris Davis? I'll admit, it was a winding road, but I'm trying to get to this. I have no doubt that Bonds, McGwire and Sosa used steroids in breaking Maris's single-season mark. I have no belief that Davis is using any kind of banned substance now. I also don't particularly think it matters. The juiced sluggers probably faced a lot of juiced pitchers, and they still beat them. 73 Bonds-hit baseballs went over the fence in one 162-game season. The game changes, and every era has its distinctions that make it somehow incomparable to every other era. Everyone knows that the current home run records came from the steroid era, just like Ty Cobb's batting mark was set during a segregation era and Cy Young's Win record was set during a four-man-rotation era.
If Chris Davis hits 62 home runs, I'll be awfully excited. It will represent an Orioles record, an AL record and a truly epic season that's memorable by any standard. But it shouldn't be remembered as any kind of "clean" record that offsets the MLB marks of the steroid era. Let's take Davis's great year for what it is (even if he "only" hits 50 homers, for that matter) and leave the past in the past.