- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Ryan Howard hit three home runs Sunday and one more yesterday, putting him on pace for 62, which would make him the first player to surpass Roger Maris’ former single-season record without an accompanying cloud of suspicion.

It doesn’t take a strong leap of faith to believe in Howard.

From 1998 to 2001, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds combined to pass Maris’ 61 homers six times.

Since then, all have been suspected of steroid use.

Howard, on the other hand, was drafted in 2001 and played in the minor leagues with steroid testing. He debuted in the majors in 2004, by which point there was testing there, too.

Of course, there are flaws in this logic.

McGwire and Sosa haven’t been found guilty of anything except for comporting themselves poorly before Congress, which isn’t exactly a crime.

Neither has Bonds, unless you believe the thorough, iron-clad reporting of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Plus, Howard and many other players could be one step ahead of the drug tests, just like all of the record-setting stars of track and field.

But let’s say Howard is clean. His 62 home runs wouldn’t be the equal of Maris’ 61 or Bonds’ 73 or Babe Ruth’s 60 or even George Foster’s 52 in 1977.

That’s because baseball has been played in distinct eras ever since it has been played, just like football and basketball or anything else, no matter how romantic notions to the contrary may be.

From 1901 to 1919, the most home runs hit in a single season were by Ruth, who hit 29 in 1919. That was the gold standard in the Dead Ball Era — 29 home runs. Until Ruth hit 54 the following season, the beginning of the Live Ball Era (1920-45). He then hit 59 the season after that and 60 six seasons after that.

Maris still owns the record for the Postwar Era (1946-68) with 61 home runs in 1961, when the American League added two teams and eight games to the schedule.

Foster — a non-Hall of Famer just like Maris — tops the Expansion Era (1969-93), edging Cecil Fielder (1991) by one home run.

What happened from 1994 to the present has been well documented — it is simply the most offensive, hitter-friendly era in the history of the game, with or without steroids.

What Howard is doing is no different than what Ruth, Maris or Bonds did — hit as many home runs as they could using the myriad variables in play in their era.

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