More than 20 years after Barry Bonds set the single-season home run record with 73 homers, the debate over the legitimacy of that record rages on. With Aaron Judge hitting 62 home runs in 2022, presumably without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, the pot has been stirred once again as to what player owns the real MLB home run record. The Judge vs Bonds debate will swirl for months to come.

Judge vs Bonds: Who is the home run king?

Of course, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both had multiple seasons with more homers than Judge’s 62. But it’s been widely known that both were using PEDs during that era. With Judge surpassing the long-held record for most homers in a season held by Roger Maris (and the American League record), who hit 61 home runs in 1961, this has officially become an Aaron Judge vs Barry Bonds debate.

With that being the case, who has the right to claim the single-season home run record? Is it Bonds or Judge?

Mr. clean

The excitement around Judge passing Maris for the home run record is at least partially fueled by the belief that he’s set the record without the help of PEDs or banned substances. In the case of Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, we know that wasn’t the case. As a result, Bonds’ Hall of Fame case was denied by voters in all 10 years of being eligible, as was the case with McGwire and Sosa. Along with those players not being in Cooperstown, many fans have chosen not to accept or acknowledge those home run records.

That means Judge is the first player to legitimately pass Maris for the single-season record. Most fans believe Judge to be a “clean” player compared to Bonds and the others. Rather than using PEDs, he just happens to be a mammoth 6’7’’ and 282-pound human being with immense strength who hit 62 home runs during the best season of his career. But does choosing to deny the legitimacy of others make Judge the home run king?

       

A little bit of doubt

For many, there is an assumption that Judge is clean. The belief is that most PEDs are out of baseball and that the era of widespread cheating via the use of banned substances is over. But outside of the players and managers who are in the clubhouse every day, there is no way of knowing with absolute certainty that there is no hint of PED use in the game today.

There could be ways that players are gaining an unfair advantage that’s going undetected or willingly unpunished. If that were true, Judge may or may not be one of the players taking advantage of that situation, essentially putting him in the same category as Bonds and the others.

Obviously, that would give him no claim to the single-season home run record.

Comparing eras

When deciding the rightful record holders in baseball, there is always the slippery slope of comparing players who played in different eras. The fact is that baseball has endured many changes throughout its immense history. Most of those changes have nothing to do with PEDs but have had a significant impact on how the game is played and how certain records should be viewed. The examples of this are nearly endless.

One could argue that the talent pool in baseball has been diluted by the existence of more tools, making it easier for players in the 21st century to hit home runs against lesser pitchers. One could argue that any records set before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 should be invalidated. Likewise, different eras have put different value on players hitting home runs. Who’s to say that Maris wouldn’t have hit 75 home runs in 1961 if teams in his era valued home runs the way teams have in the 21st century?

Even in the 21 years between Bonds’ 73-homer season and Judge’s 62-homer season, there have been meaningful ways to the how the game is played. In addition to PEDs being seemingly eliminated, there have been changes to analytics, the ways that hitters prepare by watching video, and other changes in the approach that hitters have, especially the increase in the number of at-bats that end with one of the three true outcomes (home run, strikeout, or walk).

This can make it an almost futile activity to compare the accomplishments of one era to another, even with two accomplishments that are just 21 years apart.

Enjoy without the debate

In the end, perhaps it’s possible to enjoy incredible accomplishments by players without the need to debate things like the true single-season home run king. Why can’t Judge’s 62-homer season exist as the greatest power-hitting accomplishment of his generation why Bonds gets credit for the same thing for his generation and Maris gets the same treatment for his 61-homer season? 

Bonds may have been using PEDs when he hit 73 home runs, but so were the majority of players he was playing with and against during that time. Even if he was artificially aided, Bonds still did something that no other player of his era or in baseball history has ever done.

Maris accomplished a similar feat with his 61 homers in 1961, just as Judge has done with his 62 homers in 2022.

There’s no reason why the accomplishments of all three can’t be celebrated in equal measure because all three players truly did something special at that moment, something that remains historically significant.

Ultimately, Bonds is the official single-season home run king. The numbers are what they are, and the numbers say Bonds hit 73 homers in a single season. Fans are free to think about Bonds what they want and view accomplishments from different eras differently, which is more than fine. But until someone hits more than 74 homers in a season, Bonds will have the record. Even Judge agrees with that.

“That’s the record,” Judge said after hitting his 61st home run of the season. “I watched him do it. I stayed up late watching him do it. That’s the record. No one can take that from him.”

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