Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies hit his 49th home run last night in a losing effort against the Washington Nationals. That broke the Phillies' club record, set by Mike Schmidt in 1980, and leaves Mr. Howard one homer away from joining the 50-home-run club.
Which is a big deal again, as Bob Ford writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "For most of baseball's long history … 50 home runs in a season was a special number, the dividing line between the mortal sluggers and the immortal boppers."
Mr. Ford writes that from 1966 until 1994, just two players -- George Foster and the wonderfully named Cecil Fielder -- had 50-homer seasons. The period from 1995 through 2002 saw 18 of them. But since 2002, only the Atlanta Braves' Andruw Jones has hit 50, with the Boston Red Sox's's's's's David Ortiz and Mr. Howard likely to add their names to the roster this year.
"Now, thanks to the baseball's better-late-than-never attempt to remove steroid-enhanced accomplishments from the game, the numbers are returning to normal," Mr. Ford writes.
The Fixers applaud Mr. Howard's accomplishments and have no reason to think he isn't on the square. (As opposed to on the Clear.) But unhappily, all baseball feats now inspire a sickly mix of admiration and suspicion in us.
A look at the 1995-2002 50-homer seasons is a perfect Rorschach test: The players who hit that milestone during that period are Brady Anderson, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, Ken Griffey Jr. (twice), Mark McGwire (four times), Alex Rodriguez (twice), Sammy Sosa (four times), Jim Thome and Greg Vaughn.
The Fix looks at some players on that list and would confidently bet a lot of money that they were cheaters. And the Fix looks at other players on that list and would fairly confidently bet a lot of money that they were clean. It's not fair to the (presumably) clean ones that they're mixed inextricably in with the others, just like it's (presumably) not fair to Mr. Howard that his feat must inspire such a discussion. But that's life in 21st-century baseball.