It’s the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th homer — but please, don’t call him the Home Run King

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40 years ago tonight Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. It’s a moment always worth re-visiting, so let’s:

I can never get enough of that video. Just how easy Aaron’s swing was, even 20 years into his career. Buckner climbing the outfield wall. Those wackos running onto the field and congratulating Aaron. I mean, the guy had death threats leading up to that moment and suddenly two dudes run up from behind you like that? If that happened today those two would be in Guantanamo or something.

One thing I love from the video is Al Downing’s recollection of it all. He gave up the homer and, unlike some other pitchers who would up on the other side of famous hits, he had absolutely no problem with it, acknowledging that, sometimes, the guy on the other side of things is going to get the best of you. And when it’s someone as insanely-talented as Hank Aaron, that’s going to be way more often.

My enjoyment of all of this stuff is unsurpassed. But it is just enjoyment.

One thing we’ve heard more and more of in the past few years is that Hank Aaron’s 715th home run remains — even to this day — the moment when baseball’s Home Run King was crowned. That when Aaron was passed by Barry Bonds in August of 2007 it somehow didn’t count. We heard it again just yesterday afternoon and I expect we’ll hear more of it today.

I understand this. From an enjoyment perspective I found Bonds hitting number 756 off Mike Bacsik to be far less moving. Indeed, it wasn’t particularly moving at all given all of the controversy surrounding Bonds by that time, the arguments it entailed and the fact that, unlike Aaron, Bonds was never anyone you rooted for, even if you admired his accomplishments. I appreciated his dominance, but I can’t say I found it aesthetically pleasing most of the time. Certainly not as pleasing as watching old video of Aaron. And, yes, even someone like me who has made a second career out of defending PED-users from excessive, counterfactual criticism, I can appreciate that Hank Aaron’s accomplishment is more impressive than Bonds’ on a qualitative level given Bonds’ drug use, the small parks he hit in, the equipment he had at his disposal and a host of other factors.

But with all respect to Mr. Aaron, I do draw the line at asserting the counterfactual. He is not baseball’s all-time home run leader. Or its “true” Home Run King or however people wish to characterize it. To say that is to go beyond expressing your enjoyment of his accomplishment and your appreciation of him as a player and claiming that those qualitative things — and whatever disdain one has for Barry Bonds — trump the actual record of history. The record of history — which is devoid of judgment and opinion — states that Barry Bonds hit more home runs than Hank Aaron did. Baseball recognizes this fact without qualification.

We should as well. To do otherwise is to invite chaos, as each of us brings our own values and assumptions into an assessment of the records. Maybe that’s easy to do with an Aaron-Bonds comparison, but what if I were to point out that the top five all-time pitching wins leaders had ridiculous advantages that Warren Spahn never had, thus rendering him the “True Wins Leader?” What if I were to note that Ty Cobb had similar disadvantages that Pete Rose never had and thus he was the True Hit King? We could do this with most records. Doing so would be silly in most instances and would render the idea of an actual record book — the thing people who call Hank Aaron the True Home Run King say they are trying to protect — and utterly meaningless thing.

So celebrate Hank Aaron. Hold him in higher esteem than you would Barry Bonds. Consider his accomplishments more impressive if you feel that way. But stop there. Don’t claim that black is white. Don’t claim that Hank Aaron is the real and true Home Run King. Because that’s just nonsense.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.