The "natural" home run king. That's what some would call Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard should he pass Roger Maris' pre-1998 record for home runs in a single season.
The title implies that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were fueled by cocktails of performance enhancers and would have been nabbed had baseball's current drug testing policies been in place. It also implies that Howard's feats have come in a "normal" baseball context, one more like 1961 or 1942 or 1985 than like the offense-crazed period from 1998 to 2002.
The celebration of Howard dovetails with a preseason sentiment that baseball was somehow emerging from the dark woods.
"We stand now on the cusp of not just another season but of another era, as vulnerable as lovers on the rebound," wrote Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, one of the nation's most influential baseball reporters. "What was sold and bought as a `golden age of baseball' in the restorative years after the 1994-95 strike - all prettied up by wild cards, flirtatious new ballparks and, mostly, the almighty home runs - turned out to be a lie."
He went on to herald a new, clean age, one in which all-around athleticism would trump brute strength.
The numbers, however, say that hasn't been the case. Despite harsher penalties for steroid use and newly imposed penalties for the use of amphetamines, homers (about 2.21 a game through Tuesday) are up from last season (about 2.06 a game). And though this season's totals will fall below the all-time peaks of 1999 and 2000, they will be far greater than in most seasons in baseball history.
Players are homering more than they did in McGwire and Sosa's now-infamous summer of 1998. For a little perspective, consider that teams combined for 1.57 homers a game in 1983, the last time the Orioles won the World Series. They averaged 1.91 a game in 1961, when Maris set his record. And they averaged .75 homers a game in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit his 60.
Many of the game's best hitters - Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner - are posting career-best home run rates. Old workhorses Jim Thome and Frank Thomas have resurrected themselves. A new generation of mashers, led by Howard, has emerged. Even Bonds, the slugger most hounded by steroid allegations, has hit more homers than all but one player in history who started a season at the age of 41.
The game's best teams - the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers - rank within the league's top 10 in homers.
So rumors of the home run's demise in the face of more stringent drug testing have been greatly exaggerated.
"I've seen more homers," Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons said. "I really haven't seen much of a difference. From what the testing showed in the past, we had a very low number of guys who were on [performance enhancers] anyway. It's kind of good to see the numbers have actually increased."
"I think it's the same exact game," teammate Kevin Millar added. "I think it's funny how we talk about all this testing stuff. I think pitchers are throwing harder than ever. I've seen more 100-mph fastballs this year than I think I ever have in my 10 years. Home runs - nobody's skipped a beat. You know what, guys have off years, career years. Guys hit home runs and everything clicks right. It's such a tired story, the steroid thing. It's like if a guy hits 30 and then all of a sudden, hits 18, it's because of the testing. If he has a career year and hits 38, he's on the juice. So you're in a no-win situation."
The numbers lead to three possible conclusions:
The impact of drugs on baseball's power numbers was always exaggerated.
Baseball's best have found a way around the new testing policies, possibly in the form of human growth hormone.
The game is entirely too complex to pin down with simple cause-and-effect theories.
`It was overblown'
Is it possible that baseball writers undercompensated by not raising drug questions during the homer blitz of the late 1990s and have since overcompensated by linking every great baseball achievement to chemical aid? Well, the players certainly think so.
"One hundred percent yes, it absolutely tells us that it was overblown," Gibbons said. "You just hope the media realizes that and the fans see what's going on now and see that it's the same game. What guys are doing is legit. We'll see how they react, but I'm glad to see things going the way they are."
Players have tended to defend their peers, even against the darkest steroid allegations. Bonds is the most gifted player they had ever seen, clean or otherwise. And they aren't about to say that pills or needles can create superstars.
"Baseball's a very tough game," Millar said. "It's always been a very tough game. I don't care what you take or what you don't take. Hand-eye coordination. You're hitting a moving object. Guys are throwing split-finger fastballs, sliders, changeups, curveballs. It doesn't matter what you're on, who's on what or what you think somebody's on. It's a tough game."