Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chasing 600

It's ironic, isn't it?

Baseball media has been holding its collective breath — when it wasn't temporarily distracted by the impending trade deadline — waiting for Alex Rodriguez, nicknamed "A–Rod" in the fashion of the day and then dubbed "Pay–Rod" for his relentless pursuit of ever larger paychecks, to join the 600 Home Run Club for ... how long?

To be honest, I've lost track of how long he's been stuck on 599 home runs. And, actually, it's kind of a relief to me that it's been taking him this long to break that barrier.

It sort of revives my faith in what Annie called the "church of baseball" in the movie "Bull Durham."

In an odd way, it's kind of a confirmation that baseball is finding its way out of the steroids wilderness. When steroids fever was really raging in major league baseball, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa seemed to be hitting at least one home run each on a daily basis. They didn't, but it seemed that way.

It's not that way now, though, is it? If you're looking for evidence that performance–enhancing drugs are being purged from baseball before you decide you can worship at its altar again, the evidence may be right there before your eyes, on the field, where pitching seems to be staging a comeback and the stratospheric hitting numbers we were seeing as recently as three or four years ago appear to be declining. The natural order is being restored.

Anyway, home runs seem to be harder to come by — which means, I guess, that things are becoming more the way they used to be and less the way they were just a few years ago.

About a week ago, I was reading that there was considerable optimism among longtime sportswriters that A–Rod would swat No. 600 during a series against Kansas City — especially since the guy who served up his 500th homer was scheduled to pitch.

But that series came and went, and we're still waiting for A–Rod to join the 600 Club.

The fact that A–Rod has not hit his 600th homer with the routine ease of the first 599 may not be good news for him — like anyone approaching what has long been regarded as an historic milestone, the pressure will build the longer it takes him to get there — but, for those of us who believe (and, I think, most of us do) that steroids have cheapened what were once respected athletic achievements, this may be a sign that we are on the cusp of a great era in baseball (and, perhaps, other sports as well) that could rival the days when Hank Aaron and Willie Mays electrified fans with long balls that were the products of hard work, not chemicals.

Since his major league career began in 1994, A–Rod has often been called one of the best all–around baseball players of all time — which, to me, really seems like an oxymoron for someone who started as a shortstop. I mean, when I was growing up, major league shortstops were great athletes — swift, sure–handed, talented in many ways — but rarely were they power hitters.

Power hitters were Bunyanesque figures who were usually seen playing in the outfield. Sure, they needed speed to chase down fly balls, but they also needed considerable arm strength and accuracy for making throws to infielders.

If power hitters played the infield, they were usually at the corners, at first and third, or behind the plate, where they usually didn't have to do much running. Middle infielders, the shortstops and second basemen, needed catlike reflexes, because they were the anchors of a team's defense. They might have to dive in almost any direction with less than a split second's notice in order to snag a liner or stop a grounder, then leap to their feet and make a throw to catch a runner off base — and they frequently did so off balance.

They were graceful, with the moves and stamina of ballet dancers. They weren't expected to hit home runs, and most of them didn't.

I guess that is what I have always liked about baseball. I mean, there are times when a baseball game can be so pedestrian that it can put you to sleep, but baseball has always been an equal opportunity sport. Other sports demanded that you be at least a certain height or a certain weight or able to run a certain distance in a certain time before you could play, but baseball took what you brought to the table and found a place for you.

Sometimes, you hear football fans speak wistfully of the old–timers who used to play offense and defense. To hear them talk, one could easily conclude that it was normal in those days for people to "play both sides," but the guys who did were always the exception to the rule, even then. The truth is that almost no one can excel at both offense and defense in any sport. And baseball has always been better than other sports at using specialization as an excuse for a player's shortcomings.

Pitchers, for example, have long been excused from the responsibility of batting because they needed to focus on their pitching. Thus, it has been noteworthy when a pitcher has been able to contribute at the plate as well.

It's also noteworthy that the phrase "power hitter" — perhaps not in all usages but certainly in the context of hitting home runs — is relatively new, given that records have been kept in baseball since the 19th century.

When my parents were children, only one man in the history of baseball — Babe Ruth — had hit 600 (or more) home runs in a major league career.

And he remained the only member of the so–called 600 Home Run Club for more than two decades after his death. For years, the men who followed him immediately on baseball's all–time home run list had half as many homers as Ruth did — if that many.

Most of the fans of Ruth's day probably believed his career home run total was untouchable. And students of the game will give you several good reasons why they would have believed that — there were fewer teams so the talent wasn't as diluted as it is now; ballparks in the first half of the 20th century were much larger than the ballparks that replaced them; the regular season was shorter.

Those are valid reasons, but expansion and smaller ballparks and longer schedules can't completely explain why other guys, like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey and Ernie Banks, never reached that 600–home run plateau.

Nevertheless, when I was in my youth, two players — Mays and Aaron — joined the most exclusive club in sports. And, in 1974, Aaron caught Ruth and surpassed him on the all–time list.

Then things got sort of quiet. No one joined the 600–homer fraternity until nearly three decades after Aaron replaced Ruth as baseball's home run king. But in the last couple of decades, the pace has picked up considerably, and steroids certainly seems to have played a major role in that.

First, Barry Bonds hit his 600th home run in 2002, then Sammy Sosa did it in 2007. And then Ken Griffey Jr. did it in 2008.

And now that club, which for decades consisted of only one member, has six members, three of whom have joined since 2002. When A–Rod hits his next homer, whenever that may be, there will be four new members since 2002.

What's more, there may well be further additions to the club in the years ahead. Minnesota designated hitter Jim Thome needs 23 to reach 600. He's 39 so he might not make it — but many DHs keep playing into their 40s. The Dodgers' Manny Ramirez, who needs 46 homers to reach 600, is a year younger than Thome, but since he plays in the National League, that means he must field as well as hit. That puts more wear and tear on his body; consequently, his career could easily end before Thome's does.

Free agent Gary Sheffield is just barely past 500 home runs. At the age of 41, it seems unlikely that he will find a place to play, so he seems like an unrealistic prospect for 600.

But if steroid use was still unchecked in baseball, you could expect a virtual stampede (by historical standards) of new members of the 600 Club in the coming years. And, I suspect, it would lose what is left of its significance.

If that had come to pass, would baseball still celebrate a player's 600th home run the way it has been poised to do for A–Rod? Or would 700 be the new 600? The 700–Homer Club, after all, is still exclusive, with only three members.

Well, for now, it is still an impressive achievement to hit 600 home runs or more in a major league baseball career. But the shadow of steroids hangs over those who have reached that milestone in the 21st century — including A–Rod — and many fans will always wonder how many of those home runs were the result of the use of performance–enhancing drugs.

Does it seem that I am gloating over the prolonged wait for A–Rod's 600th tater? That is not my intention. Believe me, it isn't. Not really.

Oh, sure, there's that anti–Yankee thing, but just about every baseball fan (except, of course, for Yankee fans) is anti–Yankees.

And there's a certain amount of anti–A–Rod stuff going on, but I'm not anti–A–Rod, not even with all the money he gets to play ball. He's signed contracts with three different clubs in his career, and each new one was willing to give him more money than the one before. If a team is willing to pay that kind of money, a player would be a fool to pass it up.

What's more, it seems to me that to turn down such an offer would have been a betrayal of all the baseball players who were virtual slaves before Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause in the 1970s and launched free agency.

There's even some residual resentment for inactive players like Bonds, who was never particularly popular with most fans, and Jose Canseco, who has admitted to extensive steroids use, fueling a certain bitterness that gets transferred to others.

But I don't feel that way about A–Rod. Sure, there have been times when I have been sympathetic to those who have called him "A–Fraud," largely because his enormous reservoir of talent has seldom led a team to a championship.

No, I don't hold it against him that he's getting all that money. Personally, I think many of the complaints about A–Rod's contract stem from nothing more than jealousy. After all, who wouldn't like to get that kind of money for doing whatever it is that they do well?

And I can understand how fans can feel betrayed when so much is invested in a player and so little return is seen. But it doesn't seem fair to me to blame one player, no matter how talented he may be, for not dragging his teammates to a title. Baseball really is a team sport.

But neither do I think that it's a tragedy that he's been mired at 599. Home runs are exciting to watch (although I knew a guy who asserted that a triple was actually the most exciting play to watch in baseball — and, from a dramatic perspective, I have to admit he was probably right), but they've always been part of the game. Not all of it.

Slumps, it should be remembered, have always been part of the game, too. Just because the man is on the brink of an accomplishment that only seven others in baseball's long history could claim doesn't mean it should be handed to him. And it hasn't been.

A–Rod was the youngest man to hit his 500th career major league homer. Unless this dry spell goes on much longer than anyone believes it will, he is likely to be the youngest man ever to hit his 600th homer as well.

And, after he retires, few will remember that he struggled to get his 600th dinger.

But, in the long run, baseball may be better off because he did.

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