Aaron Judge is an outfielder in a power forward’s body. At a hulking six-foot-seven inches, he looks at first like an optical illusion. Even though a pitcher stands on a 10-inch mound, Judge seems to tower over it at a distance of 60-feet-six-inches, like a big brother playing whiffle ball at a picnic with his younger siblings. And now, with all the hype that comes with being a New York Yankee, Judge is on top of the baseball world. In the season’s penultimate game, he hit his American League record 62nd home run, breaking Yankee Roger Maris’s record of 61 set 61 years ago.
It’s a tremendous accomplishment. It’s also not the Major League home run record. That belongs to Barry Lamar Bonds, who hit a staggering 73 homers in 2001 for the National League San Francisco Giants. And yet in the grand celebrations that greeted Judge’s record setting blast, Bonds’s name went unuttered, or if it merited mention, it was to deride Bonds’s accomplishment more than to celebrate Judge. Sports Illustrated senior baseball scribe Tom Verducci’s article led with the following: “[Judge] does not hold MLB’s official single-season home run record. But his authenticity, from his frame to his dedication to his sheepish smile, sets him apart.”
Verducci’s argument is that the record of Bonds is worthy of derision because of the sticky, swirling rumors—which baseball writers accept as holy writ—that Bonds took steroids and therefore all his accomplishments are “inauthentic.” For evidence, they point to changes in Bonds’s body and his unprecedented statistical production toward the back end of his career. Yet there is something bigger going on. Verducci gives the game away by being besotted with Judge’s “sheepish smile.” Barry Bonds was typecast as unsmiling and angry from the moment he entered the league with the Pirates, playing with a chip on his shoulder the size of Pittsburgh. This chip was the result of a fiery, generational desire to be the best and of the way Major League Baseball had treated his incredibly talented father, Bobby Bonds, who was billed as the next Willie Mays and played for eight teams over his star-crossed 14-year career. Bobby Bonds was viewed as a malcontent, an angry Black man in an era when that posture was unacceptable to the incurious, white, male, and all-powerful baseball media. If anything, Barry Bonds’s career is an indictment of that baseball media’s next generation. It was almost as if his father’s reputation were grandfathered in, and they decided to treat him from day one as toxic and he responded in kind. Or maybe it’s simply that unsmiling Black athletes in baseball are still seen as impermissible. (These same journalists wonder why more US-born Black kids don’t play baseball)
The story that Verducci doesn’t tell is that when the steroid rumors blared around the other two symbols of the era, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as they chased Maris’s homer record in 1998, the sports media was blinded by their fan-friendly antics and, yes, sheepish smiles. Bonds, who by this time had already built a Hall of Fame résumé, bulked up and not only passed McGwire and Sosa but even put Babe Ruth in the rearview mirror. Seeing Barry Bonds hit was like few spectacles in baseball history. At his best, his skills were bigger than the sport. In 2004, he maintained an on base percentage of .609. That means that 61 percent of the times he came to the plate, he reached base. That’s absurd. That’s not even baseball—that’s a low free-throw percentage. The point is that his eyes so transcended any whiff of performance enhancers that they belong in the Louvre—but these writers won’t even let him into Cooperstown.
It’s his “likability” deficit that has kept him from being celebrated and adorned his records with unofficial asterisks. Consider that the aforementioned Verducci voted for Red Sox legend David Ortiz to make the Baseball Hall of Fame, another player surrounded by steroid rumors. But Ortiz was one of the most heroic and “likable” stars of his era. These efforts to erase Bonds shame the sport. In an era when pitchers and players were popping pills, taking shots, and treating clubhouse bathrooms like a health clinic, Bonds was the best anyone had ever seen. You can like him or dislike him, but numbers are numbers. Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in a season and a record 762 in his career. Even in exile, he is still the king. And if you don’t agree with me, maybe you should ask Aaron Judge.