Bryce Harper, Nelson Cruz Giving Hope for Old-Fashioned Home Run Race in 2015

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2015

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The home run is dead. Just don't tell Bryce Harper and Nelson Cruz.

Each slugger launched a long ball Friday night. Cruz smacked his, a bases-empty blast, in the sixth inning of the Seattle Mariners' 4-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays. Harper, likewise, hit a solo shot as the Washington Nationals bested the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1.

Cruz now sits at 17 for the season, and Harper is nipping at his heels with 16. The two have been engaged in a game of dinger tag lately, as Bill Baer of NBC Sports notes:

It's early, obviously. We've seen spring power binges evaporate in the heat of summer before. But right now, the American League's pre-eminent power hitter is going toe-to-toe with the National League's main masher, and it's a spectacle like we haven't witnessed for years.

The first impulse is to conjure Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and the unbelievable summer of 1998, when they traded blows and both ultimately broke Roger Maris' single-season record, McGwire with 70 home runs and Sosa with 66.

That, however, was a pure product of the steroid era, as was Barry Bonds' 2001 assault on McGwire's newly minted record.

Bonds set the bar at 73, and it might never be cleared. In a way, it was literally the record to end all records, turning a once-hallowed milestone into a video game, a farce, a hollow charade. 

Entering play Saturday, Cruz is on pace to club 67 home runs.
Entering play Saturday, Cruz is on pace to club 67 home runs.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In every season between 1998 and 2006, MLB players combined to hit more than 5,000 home runs, per Baseball Almanac. Since 2006, that's been accomplished just once.

We've entered the post-steroid era, or "post-steroid era" if you're feeling cynical.

Yes, the shadow of performance-enhancing drugs still hangs over the game. Heck, Cruz himself was suspended 50 games for violating baseball's steroid policy in 2013.

In a way, though, that underscores how much things have changed. Baseball has a steroid policy, for one thing, and it has some teeth. It may not be strict enough for some, but it's better than nothing.

Good enough, in fact, that we can watch Harper and even Cruz do what they're doing and not immediately assume the worst. We can enjoy the majesty of the home run, one of baseball's crowning individual achievements, without automatically reverting to skepticism.

Maybe you still nurse a grudge against Cruz for his PED past. And maybe you scoff at Harper's brash personality. Remember when the Nats signed ace Max Scherzer this winter, bolstering an already-stellar staff, and Harper responded with, "Where's my ring?" per NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman. Even for a 22-year-old kid, that was cringe-worthy.

Still, you can't deny that this has the makings of a gripping storyline. Entering play Saturday, Cruz was on pace to hit 67 home runs and Harper was on pace for 62.

Sure, "on pace" doesn't mean much in May, with more than four months of potential slumps and injuries left to navigate.

Harper can be brash bordering on cocky, but his raw power is undeniable.
Harper can be brash bordering on cocky, but his raw power is undeniable.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

It does raise an interesting question, though: What if one or both players surpass Babe Ruth's iconic 60 or Maris' 61? How much meaning will that have, and what, exactly, will it mean? 

In 2013, Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis told ESPN's Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg he still considered Maris the single-season home run king, because "he was the last guy to do it clean."

Ironically, Davis was later suspended after testing positive for amphetamines. But his point stands. Among those who want to slap an asterisk next to Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and the rest, 60 and 61 remain the gold standard.

That's a conversation for another day, if we get there.

For now, crane your necks and look skyward, baseball fans. The home run is back.

All statistics current as of May 22 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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