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Why the home run chases of today are different from the late '90s and early 2000s

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees hit his 60th home run of the season earlier this week, putting him one dinger shy of the long-standing American League record.
Jamie Squire
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Getty Images
Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees hit his 60th home run of the season earlier this week, putting him one dinger shy of the long-standing American League record.

As baseball season comes to a close, fans are watching games like it's 1998 — all eyes are on home runs and two star players.

The New York Yankees' Aaron Judge, with 60 home runs so far this season, is one shy of the American League single-season home run record, set at 61 by Roger Maris back in 1961.

And on Friday night, Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals hit two out, reaching 700 career home runs, a milestone so high that Pujols is just the fourth player to have ever reached it.

With about a dozen games left for each, ticket prices and TV ratings are up as fans look to witness history.

For many, the excitement evokes the home run races of 1998 through 2001, when a trio of National League sluggers — Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds — repeatedly topped Maris' old single-season home run record en route to setting a sky-high mark that has since gone untouched: 73 homers, set by Bonds in 2001.

But those records are viewed by some as tarnished, because they were set during baseball's so-called "steroid era." Bonds, Sosa and McGwire were among the many star players accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.

Today, much has changed about how baseball handles drug policy and testing — so much so that many observers think records set now would be untarnished by comparison.

"For a lot of purists who are upset about the steroid era, 62 [home runs] by Aaron Judge is, to them, the real record. And it would mean that somebody has actually surpassed Roger Maris 'the right way,'" said AJ Schnack, director of Long Gone Summer, a documentary about the 1998 McGwire-Sosa home run race.

The home run records and the "steroid era"

Baseball players have long sought out performance-enhancing treatments of various kinds. But baseball's "steroid era" is considered to be the late 1990s and earliest years of the 2000s.

At the time, MLB did not require drug testing. By the mid-1990s, steroid use had become somewhat commonplace — some estimates said 20% or more — among major leaguers. But baseball officials, including MLB commissioner Bud Selig, denied knowledge of how prevalent steroids had become.

Meanwhile, the 1998 MLB season had one of the most exciting dynamics in years: Mark McGwire, the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa, an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, were suddenly hitting homers — lots of them.

The two players raced to break the 1961 Maris record, then to finish the season ahead of the other. The race reignited national interest in baseball after a down decade. McGwire finished the season with 70, and Sosa with 66.

"In 1998, it was a pop culture moment that everyone in the country was aware of. It was on the front page of every newspaper," Schnack said.

Sosa would clear 60 twice more, McGwire once; and in 2001, Barry Bonds bested the both of them with 73, the record that still stands today.

In 2005, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa testified before Congress about steroids. Sosa denied doping, and McGwire refused to say.
Pool / Getty Images
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Getty Images
In 2005, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa testified before Congress about steroids. Sosa denied doping, and McGwire refused to say.

"A dark day for Major League Baseball"

Then, the steroid story was blown open.

A 2000 investigation by The New York Times found that steroid use had "become a problem in baseball, perhaps even widespread." In 2002, Sports Illustrated published a pair of injection needles on its cover along with a quote from Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League MVP: "At first I felt like a cheater. But I looked around, and everybody was doing it." And in his 2005 memoir Juiced, six-time All-Star Jose Canseco took credit for kickstarting the steroid frenzy and named a slate of fellow players as steroid users, including both Sosa and McGwire.

Weeks after Juiced was published, a congressional committee opened an investigation into steroid use. (Members of Congress said that steroid use among professional baseball players had helped inspire widespread steroid use by teenagers, "risking serious and sometimes deadly consequences.")

Sosa and McGwire testified in March of that year. Sosa denied using steroids; McGwire refused to say either way. (McGwire finally admitted to using steroids in 2010.) An independent report, conducted by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and commissioned by MLB, ultimately implicated more than 80 players.

"It was a dark day for Major League Baseball," Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said in a recent interview with NPR.

In 2007, Bonds' professional career came to an end with 762 home runs, the highest total in all of baseball history, and as one of just then-three players at the time to hit 700 or more in their career. Less than two months after his last MLB game, Bonds was indicted on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to a government investigation of a steroid company.

Altogether, the era left baseball's home run charts topped by records "we all knew weren't being accomplished the right way," Tygart said.

None of the three — Bonds, McGwire or Sosa — have been voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And their records, while very much official, are seen by many as though they have an asterisk.

What's different now

MLB and its players union first reached a drug testing agreement in late 2002. Now, the league conducts more than 10,000 tests per year. Every player is tested upon reporting for spring training, and random tests are conducted throughout the season.

And where there were once few consequences, the penalties now are severe: A player's first positive test results in an 80-game suspension; their second positive test will cost 162 games, an entire season; a third positive test would result in a lifetime ban.

As a result, doping has dropped off dramatically. Of the 8,400-some tests conducted ahead of and during the 2021 season, only five came back positive for PEDs.

MLB has not hesitated to punish big stars. Just last month, All-Star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who led the National League with 42 homers in 2021, tested positive for an anabolic steroid and was suspended for 80 games, putting a major dent in the playoff aspirations for his team, the San Diego Padres.

Altogether, many baseball fans have more confidence in any records set today than those from the steroid era, Schnack said.

"Whether you feel that the records set in the late '90s and early 200s are valid or not, you can look at what's happening now with both Judge and Pujols at least knowing that Major League Baseball has a policy in place. There's testing in place," he said. "And it's not the Wild West that it was then."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.