- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2017

At 4:59 p.m. Monday, Giancarlo Stanton moved up the steps of the opposing dugout at Nationals Park. A smattering of fans in the third base stands leftover from a Q&A session with recent Hall of Fame inductees Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez spotted Stanton. The trapezius muscles that climb from his shoulders toward his ears, barreled chest and sparkling trio of chains make him hard to miss.

“When are you going to hit 62?” one shouted.

Stanton’s recent clobbering run to 50 home runs has picked up the circus around him. He was revered for his gigantic, vein-filled frame. His power was evident in spurts, only to be derailed by injuries. Stanton’s $325 million contract put the label of megastar on him. Various pains that put him on the disabled list in recent seasons undercut that. Stanton has never played more than 150 games in a season. In the last two seasons combined, he’s had just 692 at-bats.

This year, he has remained healthy and historic August production has pushed him into the MVP discussion. Beyond that, his comments and prowess have rebooted a question of value around baseball’s home run record. Are the 73 hit by Barry Bonds in 2001 the record? Or is it Roger Maris’ black-and-white total of 61 from 1961?

Anyone who has surpassed Maris has come under scrutiny for how they did it. Mark McGwire admitted to taking steroids to move by the mark. Sammy Sosa reportedly failed a PED test in 2003, but denies using steroids and claims he has never failed a test. Bonds has contended that he thought substances provided to him were flaxseed oil and a rubbing balm. When Bonds set the record in 2001, like when Sosa and McGwire entranced the nation in 1998, MLB did not have steroid testing in place.

For 10 years, Nationals manager Dusty Baker managed Bonds in San Francisco. He’s unequivocal in his belief about who holds the single-season home run record.

“Isn’t 73 the record?” Baker asked rhetorically. “I was there when he hit 73. So that’s the record to me. Boy, that was a lot of home runs. I saw Sosa, and I saw McGwire hit their 60(-plus) against us. I hope [Stanton] does hit a home run when it’s 10-0 and he hits a solo. I’m pulling for him.”

Stanton has hit 17 home runs in August to vault his total for the season to 50. As his home run total grew, so did the daily questions for him. In the middle of August, Stanton told Miami reporters that he viewed 61 as the home run record.

“The record is the record,” Stanton said then. “But, personally, I do [think 61 is the record].”

Monday, he was asked again about his view of the record. Stanton bristled at first.

“I’m not going through that BS, running around again [like] I had to do last time,” Stanton said. “So I’m not worried about it right now.”

The discussion around the number is what is bothering him?

“It doesn’t matter,” Stanton said. “The record’s the record. I’m not going through it, then tomorrow I got to answer this after the game, I’m not doing that again.”

Then, he relented when asked about the historical importance of 61 independent of any controversy.

“They both had an advantage either way,” Stanton said. “61 was against one race. Two, 73, 70s can be controversy around that. They both had different advantages in my view. The record’s the record and it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks if the record’s the record.”

Stanton was repeating a point he had made earlier in August. When Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, baseball was not integrated. Black players made up less than 10 percent of the league in 1961. Latino players accounted for 7.7 percent of major-league players. In regard to Bonds, Sosa and McGwire, Stanton was referencing the steroid questions around each.

Stanton’s relationship with Bonds further complicates the conversation. Bonds spent last season as the Marlins’ hitting coach. He did not return to that role, but still talks to Stanton often. During the offseason they exchanged messages. Recently, they have continued to do so. Bonds has advised about what questions will be coming from the media and how to properly prepare for what should be a decreasing number of strikes thrown to him.

“Barry’s been huge for me,” Stanton said.

Only in the last 10 days have pitchers begun to change how they deal with Stanton, Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. Mattingly has hit Stanton second in the lineup most of the season, moving him from cleanup to behind Dee Gordon and in front of Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. That packaging has caused a conundrum typically reserved for the middle of the order. Being cautious with Stanton, who does strike out often, can lead to further complications. This is the yin-yang of an order managers always search for.

“I don’t know that there is a plan for him,” Baker said. “He’s not hitting .400, but he is hitting a whole bunch of home runs. But he is making some outs. You want to stop the people getting on in front of him.”

Not many outs. Stanton is hitting .394 in August. Coming into Monday’s opener of a three-game series against the Nationals, his OPS is 1.482 for the month. Stanton is one of seven players to hit 17 home runs in a month. Only Sosa (20 in June 1998) and Rudy York (18 in August of 1937) have hit more in a month.

“I think we all knew it was always in there,” Yelich said. “[We’d] see it for stretches, probably not for this long ever. He’d always go on these runs. Little bit shorter, but every year he’d go on a two-week run with a bunch of homers. This one is just extended. It’s been awesome.”

That binge of joy has turned a simple question complicated. If Stanton, existing in an era when baseball has it most rigorous performance-enhancing drugs testing, hits 62, is that the “real” number? Wondering out loud makes current baseball folks measure their comments, even the typically outspoken ones.

“When you look over the course of baseball history, 61 was the number for a long time,” Jayson Werth said. “Until those guys did what they did, it wasn’t even fathomable, really. I kind of came up in that era. I played against Barry Bonds. I played against Sammy Sosa. I’ve seen what these guys can do. They’re some of the most special, talented athletes that have ever played this game. I would not take anything away from those guys. But I do think that number, 61, is significant and it is quite a feat regardless of what anyone else has done.”

Stanton is 11 short with 33 games to play. He is the first National League player to hit 50 home runs since Prince Fielder did so for Milwaukee in 2007. He is hitting a home run once every 9.5 at-bats. At this pace, he will creep into 1961 with Maris. If he reaches 62, there will be no asterisk. Only wonder of true value and a debate about who owns a record.

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