Hamilton’s Poised For A Run At The Home Run Record, But Which One?

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Josh Hamilton‘s home run binge is making a run at the major league record a legitimate possibility.

The question is, which record? Is it 61 or 73?

Given the retrospective knowledge that Mark McGwire was using steroids as he achieved his massive power display that led to him hitting 70 home runs in 1998 and the allegations that have followed Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds as they hit 66 and 73 respectively, is Hamilton going to be after Bonds’s record? Or will he be judged as the “clean” home run king if he beats Roger Maris’s 61?

It’s ironic that someone with Hamilton’s history of substance abuse has the word “clean” next to him in a context other than recreational drugs and alcohol. There have never been any performance enhancing drug allegations levied against Hamilton. He’s a supremely talented and streaky individual who’s playing his home games in a hitter’s heaven. He’s not someone who would need PEDs to achieve those heights, validating a home run chase even more.

Hamilton hit 4 homers in one game against the Orioles last week and has 18 in the Rangers’ 36 games so far. The big obstacles in his path are staying healthy on and off the field and which record he’s chasing. By mid-summer, that’s going to heat up with the weather.

Hamilton has put up bigger power numbers at home than on the road. In his MVP season of 2010, he had a slash line of .390/.438/.750 at the Ballpark in Arlington with 22 homers in 69 games; on the road, it was .327/.382/.512 with 10 homers. The numbers at home and on the road were similar last season with a .912 OPS and 14 homers at home and .852 and 11 homers on the road.

So far in 2012, he has a 1.464 OPS with 11 homers on the road and a 1.159 OPS and 7 homers at home. Obviously he’s not going to keep that up, but he’s gotten off to this blazing start and is singing for his free agent supper. The injuries wouldn’t stop a team from paying Hamilton after the season; but his substance abuse problems could very well dissuade an interested team from paying him for his talent. There are real and understandable concerns that he’s a risk to return to alcohol and/or drugs if he’s lavished with a guaranteed contract of untold riches.

If he approaches or sets the record for home runs, there will be a team to pay him something close to the $214 million Prince Fielder got from the Tigers. Positives are easy to sell when signing a player. Negatives are seen as excuses to be cheap. Home runs are more entrenched in the public consciousness than his off-field woes and there will be one team to roll the dice.

Bonds, McGwire and Sosa all broke Maris’s record, but given what we know now, it’s not old-school whining to suggest that Maris is still the home run champion. There’s an argument for just that position. In the record books, Bonds is the home run king, but the fans do have a say in the matter.

Hamilton’s not hitting 74 home runs. But he might hit 62.

Which record will it be?

Let the debate begin.