Tuesday night was a big night for Major League Baseball's home run record -- for the opposite reason everyone thinks it was.
The loudest story of the night was more nostalgia, more pretend-land where everything used to be better than it is now, the celebration of Hank Aaron's record-breaking home run 40 years ago, which led to an ESPN.com fake-live-blog that came dangerously close to cosplay, and Bud Selig pretending that he can't count.
But the biggest news came later. Because if we're ever going to get out of this Hank Aaron Nostalgia Loop, only one man can save us.
Albert Pujols, a human who until fairly recently was considered the best baseball player on the planet, hit his first home run of the season in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's 5-3 loss to Seattle. It was a classic Pujols bomb from the old school, one of those you remember, the ones that made you feel like Pujols was 20 feet tall and everyone playing against him was roughly 11 years old. Somewhere, whether he was watching or not, Brad Lidge felt a slight tug in the pit of his stomach.
It felt, in many ways, just like his first one.
It was the 493rd home run of Pujols' career, tying him with Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff, and sometime in the next two months, maybe (hopefully?) sooner, he will become the 26th person to reach the 500 home run plateau. If you don't count Alex Rodriguez -- who is suspended by Major League Baseball and therefore not technically "active" right now -- he is baseball's active leader in home runs, for the first time in his career.
Again excluding A-Rod -- whom we'll get back to -- here are the 10 active home run leaders and their ages, from Baseball Reference:
|1. Albert Pujols||34||493|
|2. Adam Dunn||34||442|
|3. Jason Giambi||43||438|
|4. Paul Konerko||38||434|
|5. David Ortiz||38||432|
|6. Alfonso Soriano||38||407|
|7. Adrian Beltre||35||376|
|8. Miguel Cabrera||31||366|
|9. Carlos Beltran||37||358|
|10. Aramis Ramirez||36||354|
Suffice it to say, Pujols aside, none of those hitters are in any danger of ever challenging to break into the top 10. Dunn, Giambi and Konerko are nearly out of the league, and only Ortiz and, eventually, Cabrera have any hope of making it to 500. In 2000, nine of the top 25 home run hitters of all time were active; in 2025, there likely won't be any. We can all speculate as to why that might be, but it's undeniable that the game is moving away from its power heyday. (As Joe Sheehan has pointed out in his indispensible newsletter, it's moving more toward strikeouts than anything else, but that's another column.)
Which means if you were exhausted by the conversation about who is the "real" Home Run King -- and it's worth setting the frames of the "debate:" Either you think that math doesn't matter, or you think that even though Hank Aaron might be an amazing hitter, and a far more admirable person, Barry Bonds hit more home runs and that, uh, is sort of what counts here -- you are extremely unlikely to ever escape it in your lifetime. This debate will never end because no one is going to break Barry Bonds' record for many, many years. Miguel Cabrera, the youngest person on that list, will have to average 39 home runs a season (a number he has only reached twice) for the next ten years to even get close. Albert Pujols might be your only hope.
(And here is your Alex Rodriguez aside. When A-Rod returns next season, he will remain 108 home runs behind Bonds. He'll have three more years on his Yankees contract, and while it's possible he'll hit 36 homers a year to tie the record, it's highly unlikely. And even if he does, he'll be a more polarizing leader than Bonds, if you can imagine that. So while A-Rod passing Bonds is not completely outside the realm of possibility, it doesn't change the fundamental calculus of the discussion, such as it is.)
Pujols, counting this year, has eight years left on his contract with the Angels. Coming into 2014, he had averaged 37.8 home runs a year, a pace he'll nearly have to match to catch Bonds in Anaheim: He's 269 behind, which requires a 33.6 home run per year pace, again, counting this year. Of course, that ignores the falloff he's had since leaving St. Louis, either because of age, injury or both: He's averaging 23.5 since moving west.
Even he had stayed at his career average these first two seasons, he'd be unlikely to get that close to Bonds. Remember, back in 2009, the general consensus was that A-Rod could not only do it, he could do it with ease. When Nate Silver argued in Baseball Prospectus that A-Rod wasn't going to make it, he was widely mocked. Now, Silver looks almost too optimistic. Players' bodies break down in their mid-30s. (Everybody's does.) Past performance is no indicator of future results.
It requires quite a bit of magical thinking to believe Pujols even has a remote chance. (It also requires you to assume that Pujols will never be tainted with any scandal of his own, which would seem a fair assumption but then again, it seemed like a fair assumption for Ryan Braun and David Ortiz and Andy Pettitte once as well.) But if you want this "Hank Aaron is the real champ! Barry Bonds HAS A FAKE RECORD" nonsense to go away, the only real hope you have, for now, is Pujols.
It seems ridiculous. But then you see a homer like Tuesday night, a vintage Pujols blast, and you want to believe. You beg to believe. Because as dumb as the Aaron-Bonds-who-really-holds-the-record conversation is … it's never going away until someone passes Bonds. And if it's not Pujols, it's not going to be anyone until most of us are long gone.
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