One thing I learned in my college economics classes (I took intro courses, and that was quite enough for me) is that scarcity cuts both ways. When something is freely available, it just won’t be worth very much.
My professor used the example of a personal computer, back in the days when Apple Macs were the new thing and a laptop was still a techie’s fantasy. He told us that a computer in one room of the house would be a good thing, but a computer in ever room of the house would be a bad thing. Then I wouldn’t have any place to put more computers, and I might pay a few dollars to go and look for more space, but I wouldn’t pay what I paid for my first one. And the concept has stayed with me for decades since then, as computers have proliferated to the point where I can put one in my pocket or wear one on my wrist.
The other end of the scarcity spectrum is diamonds. Perhaps the craziest job I ever had was calling jewelers around the country, describing diamonds I had never seen in terms I barely understood. And they didn’t appreciate when the diamonds I sent to them turned out to be, in their opinion, different than what I had described. A little letter can mean thousands of dollars in the value of a little rock you can hold in your hand. Why? Because diamonds have been manipulated for maximum scarcity over many decades.
In baseball parlance, the 50-homer plateau was the mark of an excellent season when I was a kid. In my youth, when baseball was literally all that mattered to me, it was accomplished just once, when George Foster hit 52 for the Big Red Machine in 1977. George Foster was an All-Star, he won World Series titles and he scored the winning run in what turned out to be Roberto Clemente’s final ballgame in the 1972 National League playoffs (something I once learned by reading the back of an old baseball card). But all of those things are secondary to the fact that he hit 50 homers in one season. It was a feat of almost superhuman proportions.
The 50-homer mark was never reached by Hank Aaron, even though the wound up with more homers for his career than Babe Ruth had. It was never reached by Mike Schmidt or Reggie Jackson, two sluggers who are in the Hall of Fame. It was approached a few times, by the likes of Dave Kingman in the ’70s and Andre Dawson in the ’80s, but it was never reached. It was the equivalent of a sparkly diamond.
And then, in 1990, the year I graduated from college, a previously unheralded schmoe named Cecil Fielder made a run at the magic number of 50. It had been 13 seasons since Foster last did it, and Fielder went into the final game of the season sitting on 49 homers. He had suffered five straight 0-for-4 games with history staring him in the face, and going into the final day of the season, it looked like he was going to fall short. But then, when the pressure was at its peak, Fielder delivered with not one, but two home runs. It was the best baseball story I had seen that season.
And then, in the late 1990s, things began to change. Ken Griffey made what seemed like a yearly assault on Roger Maris’s record, and the McGwire and Sosa race came along, and 50 homers in a season was never the same again. Brady Anderson hit 50 homers in a season, back in 1996. To give you an idea of what a joke that was, consider that he only topped 20 homers in a single season two other times and never hit more than 24 homers in a season outside of 1996. His performance is either the greatest fluke in baseball history or … something else.
We now call it the PED era, and as Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez so clearly remind us, we aren’t done with it yet. We may never be out of it, with the rewards being so great and the punishment for being caught so small. Bartolo Colon isn’t going to the Hall of Fame anyway, and he isn’t giving any of the $75 million he’s earned in the majors back, either. He dodged the Biogenesis bullet by serving a suspension last year, and for those who weren’t so lucky, they’ll be back on the field soon enough.
So there’s a mix of players who did use steroids (we know at least a few of them by now) and those who did not. But to sort them out seems to be a fool’s errand, because a lot of their names just don’t mean very much to me to begin with. I still love baseball, but not like I did back in the 1970s and 1980s, when 50 homers in a season was nearly unattainable.
Now that 50 homers has become like my Econ professor’s example of a Mac in every room, I want to get back to the days when they were scarce again. Doing this would help to flush these last 15 years or so out of my mind. I want Chris Davis to be the next Cecil Fielder, not just another Brady Anderson or Greg Vaughn.
Kudos to Chris Davis for reaching this mark. May it help move 50 homers in a season back to being the special and rare feat that it once was.