The reason baseball’s present connects so well with its past is that the milestone numbers used to measure performance have remained constant over the years. Chief among those numbers is home run totals, but the still unresolved steroid controversy of the last few years has called this important statistic into question. After nearly forty years without a 60-home-run season—indeed, with few 50-homer seasons—these rarities are starting to seem like attainable goals. And the thirty-five- to forty-homer season, once the sign of an elite power hitter, has become something of a norm.
If single-season numbers have skyrocketed, it goes without saying that career totals are being similarly elevated. When Ken Griffey Jr. clubbed his 500th career homer on June 20 and became, at thirty-four, the sixth youngest player to join that lofty club (now twenty members strong), I began to wonder whether this achievement could still be considered an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame. Every other 500-homer hitter is in the Hall, except Mark McGwire, who has yet to be retired the requisite five years for eligibility, and Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, all of whom are still active.
During his eleven years with Seattle, Griffey was among the top five players in baseball. Following his 2000 trade to Cincinnati, though, he suffered a succession of injuries that curtailed his playing time and caused a dramatic fall-off in his numbers. Now healthy again, he is playing like an All Star.
However, enshrinement in the Hall implies a level of consistent excellence that doesn’t allow for significant inconsistencies in a player’s prime. With a few exceptions, the members of the 500 club could have been elected even without their home run numbers. Certainly, Harmon Killebrew (573) is there strictly for his home run prowess. Reggie Jackson (563) is a somewhat different case: his flair for the dramatic made him such a charismatic performer, especially in the post-season, that his personality dominated baseball for most of the 1970s. Mike Schmidt (548) was a superior third baseman and a leader on a succession of great Phillies teams, but may have been only a borderline Hall of Famer without the power milestone.
As for the others, Hank Aaron, the all-time home run king at 755, was also a .305 lifetime hitter. Babe Ruth (714) is Babe Ruth, a metaphor for baseball itself. Willie Mays (660) is one of the all around greats. Frank Robinson (586) was an MVP player with the Reds and served on exceptional Orioles teams. Ted Williams (521) was a .400 hitter to go with his power. Ernie Banks (512) was that rare power-hitting middle infielder, and also another personality without whom it’s impossible to imagine the sport. Eddie Murray (504) hung on to reach some milestones toward the end of his career—at age forty, he is the second oldest player to reach 500—but you can’t detract from his amazing 3,255 hits, the meat to go with his taters.
McGwire is going to be an interesting case for the voters when he appears on the ballot. Like Griffey, he had some lean years midway through his career, when he looked like he might be a Dave Kingman clone: a .200 hitter with awesome power. As the short-lived single-season home run king, and the first player ever to hit 70 during a campaign, McGwire was widely credited with resuscitating baseball from its post-strike decline. His pursuit of Roger Maris inspired fans numb from the business of baseball, helping them to once again feel the tingle of the game’s on-field drama. However, with the benefit of hindsight, voters may undervalue his power numbers, attributing them as much to pharmaceutical enhancement as to pure talent.
Sosa, whose corked bat incident has been virtually forgotten, is to my mind a surer Hall of Famer than McGwire because he has put up superior totals on a more regular basis. He does, after all, have more 60-home-run seasons than any player in history. Given that he probably has four or five good seasons ahead of him, he will almost certainly become the fifth member of the 600-home-run club, and that’s got to guarantee induction. Of course, Barry Bonds, the six-time (and counting?) National League MVP, is a lock.
Palmeiro is a borderline case. His production has been consistently excellent, but does he merit a place among the all-time elites? Griffey falls into the same category. His mid-career slide weighs heavily against him here. On the other hand, he still has plenty of time to put up some monster seasons more reminiscent of his earlier Mariner years; this would make him a shoo-in. Among the possibilities in his case is the chance to crack 600 shots.
Tampa’s Fred McGriff will occasion considerable debate among voters and fans when his name turns up on the ballot. He’s hanging on by his fingernails with the Devil Rays, trying to knock seven more balls out of the park to attain 500. Were he to retire where he stands, at 493, he would end up tied with Lou Gehrig for twenty-first on the all-time list. He’s been a star player and dangerous run producer for almost twenty years, but, again, is he to be enshrined among the immortals?
Obviously, when talking about borderline 500-home-run hitters, we’re still talking about the borderline best-of-the-best. Their fate, I think, will rest on how the home run binges of the late 1990s and early 2000s come to be perceived. If these years are looked upon as asterisk seasons, then other statistics will be demanded to bolster their cause. In that case, a pillar of greatness will have fallen and baseball will have lost a central connector to its past glories.
Tod Hoffman is watching the 2004 Major League Baseball season from the stands of the “Big O” in Montreal.The Baseball Notebook appears every second Tuesday.