Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez has 599 career home runs at the time of writing.
Roughly 18 years ago on May 3, 1992, Mets slugger Eddie Murray launched his 400th career home run in a 7-0 victory over Atlanta. This was a big deal. I know because I was there.
Unfortunately, neither my father nor his dashingly hansom 5-year-old son actually witnessed Murray’s historic blast due to my typically weak (for a preschooler) 5-year-old bladder.
I had to pee. We missed his at-bat.
I only vaguely remember this day, but know its details intimately as its an anecdote my father occasionally uses to impress friends – the best thing the Hilson family has to a “Good Will Hunting” moment.
Like “You missed Pudge Fisk’s home run? For a girl? You’re kidding me,” only:
You missed Ed Murray? For a Big Gulp? You’re kidding me.
Or something like that. Anyway, fast forward some 12 years when my dad and I bump into an impeccably well-tanned Alex Rodriguez shanking golf balls a couple blocks up from our house.
It’s not every day that one encounters the “greatest living ballplayer” out in the wild (though, actually, this was the first of several run-ins – hell, the guy dropped in on my yearbook class). So my father approached this 6-foot-4-inch glowing mass of orange, said hi and dropped the Murray story in their few seconds of casual conversation.
While I’m impressed with the symmetry of this story, young A-Rod was not impressed with Murray’s 400 homers. And why would he be? If you’re Alex Rodriguez, you’re interested in three things: tanning, aging pop divas and doubling the total of a number once thought to mean something.
Mr. 800, anyone?
I tell you these stories both to impress you via name-dropping and emphasize that 400 career home runs was a huge deal. And it was a huge deal in my lifetime. On that day in May ’92, Murray became the 24th player in Major League history and the second active player (Dave Winfield, 411) to reach the once-momentous milestone.
The last two-plus decades, of course, have so altered baseball’s dynamics as to render these historically hallowed yardsticks inconsequential. The era-defining transformations read like this: diluted talent pool, shrinking ballparks, juiced baseballs, thinning air and – you may have heard – bigger, faster, stronger, more acne-ridden players.
For perspective’s sake, know that a startling 22 players have joined the 400 Club since 1997. Of the 128 players that have reached 300 career homers, 21 are still active and another 36 made their Big League debuts after the 1984 season. Anomalies in this latter bunch include Steve Finley (304), Luis Gonzalez (354) and Greg Vaughn (355), along with household names Sosa, Bagwell, Canseco, Bonds and Green.
Shawn Green. 328.
Performance enhancing drugs have become such a pervasive part of baseball culture that googling any player produces a “name + steroids” search option. They’ve directly produced staggering single-season figures that inspire WTF? double-takes and have more or less turned the backs of baseball cards into incriminating documents the products of look-the-other-way policies.
The Steroid Era transformed the likes of Brady Anderson (50 HR in ’96), Javy Lopez (43 HR in 457 ’03 ABs) and Brett Boone (37, 131, .331 in ’00) into Ruthian sluggers; vaulted McGwire/Sosa into the realm of legend; raised the red flag on any and all contract years; and greased the skids for that damning 162-game freak show that was 2001.
Of all the laughably inane statistical aberrations of the last 20 or so years, my favorite by far is this: in 2001, Louis Gonzalez of eventual champion Arizona finished with 57 homers, 142 RBI, 128 runs, a .325 average, a godlike 1.117 OPS, 100 walks and 198 hits… and finished third in the NL MVP voting behind the following two he-men.
2. Sammy Sosa – 64 HR, 160 RBI, 146 R, .328 BA, 1.174 OPS, 116 BB, 189 H
1. Barry Bonds – 73 HR, 137 RBI, 129 R, .328 BA, 1.379 OPS, 177 BB, 156 H in… wait for it… 476 at-bats
That Rich Aurilia, Brian Giles and Phil Nevin all topped 36 homers and .940 OPS is notable in its own right.
Are you like me? Are you still dumbfounded by the above even though you recall these players and their superhuman feats all too vividly? Are you still shaking your head at the sportswriter-floated notion that the tinkered spacing on the ball’s seams inflated power output? Are you reminded by every 2010 no-hitter of this generation’s sans-chemicals offensive impotence?
Are you starting to talk yourself into Greg Maddux as the greatest of all-time? Are you starting to realize that he used a knife to kill men in a gunfight?
Or do you instead just look back on the golden years of your childhood and think, “Wow. Baseball was a total joke.”
Contrarians would argue that the Steroids Era is just part and parcel with baseball’s ever-evolving landscape – that the record books are no more or less valid now than they were when a bunch of fat, white guys took advantage of legalized racism.
You want to erase Barry Bonds? Fine. But replace him with Josh Gibson. Still others might counter that power statistics like RBI were never legit measures of success in the first place.
Ultimately the arguments stop and end here: Major League Baseball has forever sacrificed one of its most intrinsic appeals – the mythical lore of its records.
In short, baseball is no longer a numbers game. And it will never be again because many of its sacred touchstones have been blown out of the water and permanently put out of reach.
Nobody will ever surpass 73 home runs in a single season, much less in 476 at-bats. And if he does, he will have done so dishonestly.
Which brings me back to Alex Rodriguez, a confessed cheater who stands on the precipice of 600 home runs and, at a day short of his 35th birthday, within striking distance of several vulnerable all-time marks. Regardless of the surrounding fanfare or lack thereof, A-Rod’s next longball will be bittersweet in that it will remind us of the young man who, not long ago, was anointed our national pastime’s presumed savior.
Rodriguez was going to set the records straight – erase the taint of BALCO, Bonds, 762 and other ill-gotten gains. Instead, his 600 – as with his 700, 756 and 763 – will just re-emphasize the fact that the statistics mean nothing, and worse, that we’re still waiting for a historical restoration that will never come.