Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles currently leads Major League Baseball in home runs with 37. He is roughly on pace to hit 62 home runs this season, which would eclipse the total of 61 that former Yankee Roger Maris put up in 1961. This shouldn’t mean anything, and yet many people still cling to the illusory notion that it does.
Maris was the single-season home run king for 27 years, after passing previous record holder Babe Ruth’s record that stood for 34 years. In 1998, both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpassed Maris’ mark with 70 and 66 respectively. McGwire held this record for a scant three years before being passed by Barry Bonds, who set the all-time record of 73 in 2001, a record that has survived for a little over a decade.
In the minds of baseball purists, and the aforementioned Orioles player Chris Davis, Roger Maris is still the record holder. This is, of course, retarded. Basic mathematics tells us that 73 is greater than 70 is greater than 66 is greater than 61. “Ah, but there’s context!” shout said purists, and this is true. Each and every meaningful statistic in sports carries with it context: the style of play common in the era, the teammates of a given record holder, etc. And the context in question when it comes to ignoring simple facts when it comes to the single-season home run record is that of steroids, the looming specter that shrouded an entire era of baseball in bullshit moral debates and cries about the sanctity of the game.
While he has never failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs, Barry Bonds almost assuredly took them, and he was convicted of some crime or other that amounted to a slap on the wrist despite federal prosecutors spending seven years trying to nail him for something good. In the course of his playing career, Bonds won 8 Gold Glove Awards, 7 MVP Awards, smacked 762 home runs (most all-time) including the single-season record, and led the league in all kinds of categories throughout his career with some absolutely fucking insane numbers (go look at his 2004 season numbers and weep for the future…baseball will never be played at that high a level again in our lifetimes).
In the eyes of many, however, it’s all a mirage because he took drugs to help him achieve it. Let’s put aside the questions about how much impact they would have had on his baseball abilities or that fact that dozens and maybe hundreds of players were taking them and not hitting like Bonds was and ask what is to me the much more interesting question: why shouldn’t he have taken drugs to enhance his performance?
In the world of music, it’s startlingly common to turn to drugs for help in a number of ways. It can be as simple as taking a beta blocker to help fight your body’s natural tendencies when getting nervous, or dropping acid and listening to the Grateful Dead in a deserted beach house in Northern California. But the best and most successful way to use drugs in the realm of music is as a creative mechanism is for the difficult task of actually writing it.
The Beatles, a fairly universal pick as the greatest band of all-time, have a long and storied history of using drugs, from amphetamines to get them through those epic Hamburg sessions (which directly contributed to their cohesion as a band) to weed, LSD, cocaine and the like taking them from the throwaway Brit pop-rock outfit that sang stupid shit like “Love Me Do” to the unholy alliance of awesomeness that gave us Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, White Album, Yellow Submarine, and on and on. Would Lennon and McCartney (fine, and George Harrison) have been able to write awesome shit without the benefit of drugs? Probably. Would it have been as unique and characteristically BEATLES as what we know? Fuck no.
Drugs are an integral part of music, and many of the all-time greats used drugs at least in part to stimulate creativity. Bob Dylan is considered one of, if not the, greatest folk singer-songwriter of all-time, and his music is heavily influenced by drug use. Ditto Willie Nelson. Ditto Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and countless others. Rap and hip-hop music is synonymous with drug use, especially marijuana, and the greatest rap album in history is named for it.
In no way does the use of drugs to enhance performance inhibit our ability to like “Penny Lane” or “Pinball Wizard” or “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or Bitches Brew or The Chronic. It’s just part of the story, a possibly necessary element in the mind-expanding exercise of bringing creativity into the world. I’m certainly not going to NOT enjoy “Gin and Juice” despite the fact that a crucial component to the success of the song surely involved a real-life Dre and Snoop rolling down the street and smoking indo sipping on gin and juice, most likely with their minds on their money and their money on their minds. If getting blazed the fuck up was what it took for Dre to make that beat and Snoop to drop that verse, so be it.
Should we make Journey the greatest band of all-time because they were clean and still wrote “Don’t Stop Believin'”? Is Angus Young better than Jimi Hendrix because Jimi got high as shit? Does 50 Cent’s claim that he’s never taken drugs make him a superior artist to Tupac, Biggie, Jay Z, or whichever rapper you think is best? No, no, and no. When it comes to music, the great majority of us don’t give a shit what it takes to make it happen, we just want it to happen, and if performance-enhancing substances like cocaine, heroin, and LSD will make “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” better, then we’re on board.
Why the double standard between music and athletics? I, like most humans, was transfixed by the height of the steroid era. The summer of 1998, when McGwire and Sosa were chasing one another and Roger Maris all at once, was magical. Barry Bonds from 2001-2004 dominated his sport at a level that perhaps no other athlete in history in their chosen field can match. Did Adrian Peterson take steroids to come back quicker, stronger, and better this past season and almost set the single-season rushing record and single-handedly carry his team to the playoffs? Maybe, but it was fucking awesome to watch. Lance Armstrong may have been blood doping, but so were dozens of other riders and I saw exactly zero of them crush it to the tune of seven consecutive Tour de France titles.
The only explanation lies in the statistics and the relevance of those statistics to our understanding of greatness. It doesn’t REALLY matter how many gold records or #1 hits The Beatles had, because music is ultimately a subjective art form and our anointing The Beatles as the greatest band ever is only partially supported by all those gold records and #1 hits – mostly it’s supported by the “man, ‘Paperback Writer’ is a cool fucking song” idea of cultural significance. In the United States, the statistics will tell you that country music group Alabama had 41 #1 songs to the Beatles 27, but we don’t care about the statistics in this case because they don’t support our argument, but also The Beatles, AMIRITE?!
Barry Bonds retired with seven more home runs over the course of his career than Henry Aaron, but we are uncomfortable with him being the all-time leader so we cheapen the record by pointing to the steroid use as the PRIMARY reason for the success. The context that we demand to rationalize Roger Maris as the single-season home run leader is absent when it doesn’t support our chosen narrative. Bonds likely used steroids, and perhaps Aaron did not. But Bonds played the bulk of his career in Candlestick Park and what is now called AT&T Park, both of which are notoriously difficult parks for left-handed hitters to ht home runs in. Aaron played the bulk of his career in a stadium with the nickname “The Launching Pad.” Does that make a difference? Of course!
Ultimately context is everything, and that’s why it’s imperative that it informs every argument, despite the fact that it grows more and more difficult for people to do so as we retreat to our poles and hunker down with like-minded fellow travelers. We can choose to validate the “clean” over the “dirty” if we like, or not listen to R Kelly or Wagner because they pissed on young girls or hated Jews respectively, but we do so at a cost to ourselves. I understand those who choose to place themselves on moral high ground; I’ll never forget in Sunday School as a kid when my teacher broke a Styx CD, saying it was the devil’s music because of the band’s name…and then I grew up and listened to Styx and realized that was really fucking stupid and they’re super cheesy but enjoyable. But those people are a) selectively and hypocritically applying their criteria however they see fit and b) missing out.
I don’t care that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had to trip mad balls in order for the music of the late ’60’s to be better. I don’t care that Berlioz had to reinvent orchestral writing by doing shit tons of opium and having psychotic dreams. I don’t care that it took an ultimately devastating heroin addiction for that guy from Sublime to write “Santeria.” And I don’t care if Barry Bonds was applying steroid cream to his ass to have a .609 on-base-percentage in 2004 (.609!!!!). I saw Barry Bonds get intentionally walked with the bases loaded once, and I saw him hit a ball off Francisco Rodriguez in the 2002 World Series that may actually still be in the air 11 years later it was clobbered so hard. They happened in real life, I saw them with my human eyes, and I can place them in their proper context and appreciate them for what they were: borderline inhuman athletic achievements from a supremely gifted athlete utilizing the latest scientific advances to increase his already unfathomable ability.
Let’s spare ourselves the indignant routine and the bullshit double standard and appreciate greatness in every way we can get it. I hope Chris Davis hits a whole bunch more home runs because he’s been a bad man this year. And if he could be even better by shoving a syringe full of drugs into his ass, I’d say go for it. Are we not entertained?