Going, going, gone!!!
Albert Pujols has now joined one of the most elite groups in sports, the 500 home run club. He seems to have joined this club in the quietest manner possible. As Mike Greenberg of ESPN accurately observed, there was very little if any lead up to Pujols hitting #500 besides the Angels putting a countdown board inside Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Yes, even their stadium is “of Anaheim.” Why was Pujols able to so quietly enter the 500 home run club? He is not the most boisterous member of the club nor is he the quietest. Has the 500 home run club lost some of the luster it once held?
The game of baseball continually evolves from year to year. Home runs have become more a part of the game, in the same way it has become more acceptable for players to strikeout 100 or 200 times per season. As more and more players swing for the fences with more regularity their career numbers are piling up both quicker and higher. The changes to the game mean more players are reaching higher numbers, and thus the standards for reaching the elite clubs are also growing higher. The more home runs players hit, the higher the standards will be for elite status. This is why the 500 home run club has gone from rarefied air status to elite status. I am not cheapening the accomplishment; rather I am suggesting that the creation of a new gold standard club is needed as the 500 club is becoming more crowded.
The 600 home run club should be the newest evolution of baseball and the record books, simply because it separates the all-time greats from the other players who have reached elite levels. The 500 home run club has 26 members in it now with the addition of Pujols. Among the 26 players are one active player (Pujols), one suspended player (Alex Rodriguez), four players who have retired but have not yet become eligible for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Gary Sheffield, Ken Griffey, Jr., Jim Thome, and Manny Ramirez), four retired players who are eligible for Hall of Fame election but have not been elected (Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa), and 16 Hall of Famers (Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Murray, and Frank Thomas). Assuming you can separate the steroids from the players who have been associated with them, every single one is or should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Clearly the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America) does not agree.
If you are in the camp which wants those associated with steroids stricken from the record books then there would not be 26 members of the 500 home run club, rather there would be 19 members. While 19 is still a fairly large group, 5 of these members have joined since the 1994 players strike. The group is unlikely to see many new members in the next few years as those within striking distance have either announced they will be retiring or have seen their production drop off as they approach the end of their career.
As guarded as the BBWAA is concerning the players it elects to Cooperstown it would seem appropriate to delineate further the all-time greats into more specific categories. The BBWAA appears to take the stance that it is better to leave out a few close calls from the Hall of Fame than it is to elect them all and in some manner cheapen the Hall of Fame. While this draws the ire of some people, I cannot categorically disagree with them. There is a separation between the greatest to ever play the game and the players who were very good. This is where I believe it is appropriate to designate the 600 home run club with the admiration which the 500 home run club once held.
The 600 home run club is much smaller than the 500 home run club, and is reserved solely for those who have been able to maintain consistent success over long careers. There are only eight members of the 600 home run club: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, and Sammy Sosa. If you do not want those associated with steroids to be placed within this rarefied air then there would only be five members of this club: Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Griffey, and Thome. Regardless if you believe the 600 home run club should consist of eight or five members it cannot be argued this is not an exclusive club to which only those players who are all-time greats can join. Maintaining the exclusivity of a club for the games’ greatest sluggers is imperative due to the impact the steroid era had on the record books.
Steroids do not help players hit a baseball. This simple statement often gets forgotten when people are debating the impact of steroids and the steroid era on baseball. They do however help to keep your body from breaking down during the season, thus you can play in more games and when you do connect with a pitch it will go farther. Baseballs fly faster and farther as I have previously examined here with juiced up players swinging their bats. The home runs and the home run chase in 1998 did help to bring back tons of fans after the 1994 players strike; to some extent it has made a mockery of the record books and cheapened the accomplishments of players like Roger Maris and Jimmie Foxx. The video game like numbers players were putting up were great for increasing attendance and excitement around baseball, but was the fall out for the sport worth it? Was it worth it to the players and the potential health problems they could face from the use of steroids? What about the players who did not make the Majors or had their careers cut short because they either refused to use steroids or were blocked by players who were using steroids?
The 500 home run club has added 11 members since the beginning of the steroid era. Adding close to half of its members during one of its most contentious eras has lessened the exclusivity of the club and made the club lose some of the luster it once had. The more members the 500 home run club has, the less exclusive and special it becomes, which is unfortunately as 500 home runs during a career should be celebrated, not just a note on the next days’ sports page. During the 10 year span between Mark McGwire joining the 500 home run club and Gary Sheffield joining, eight other players surpassed 500 career home runs. After McGwire were Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Manny Rameriez, and finally Gary Sheffield. Just three of these players only Griffey, Thomas, and Thome were never accused or tested positive for steroids. Thomas will be inducted into Cooperstown this summer. Griffey and Thome will follow closely behind him. The other seven were busted for steroid use, in the case of Palmeiro and Ramirez, highly suspected though never caught with a smoking gun, in the cases of Bonds, Sosa, and Sheffield, or busted through the paper trail, in the case of Rodriguez. These players flooded the market with their home runs, while also cheapening the accomplishment for those who played without the assistance of steroids.
The second greatest 10 year span for players joining the 500 home run club was from Willie Mays joining on September 13, 1965 to Frank Robinson on September 13, 1971. The six years between these two legends saw five other legends join the 500 home run club: Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Harmon Killebrew. The worse you could say about this group is Mantle probably drank too much and it shortened his career and unless I have missed some medical news alcohol does not help you to hit a baseball farther. Clearly none of the men in the 500 home run club are saints, but the flood which entered during the steroid era sought to cheat the game and its fans out of seeing a real product on the field.
The players who have been linked to steroids changed what it meant to be an elite slugger in baseball. Hitting 25 or 30 home runs were barely noticed during the steroid era. If a player wanted to be noticed he needed to hit at least 40 home runs. This further accelerated the decline of small ball and made the Bash Brothers the norm. Do not misinterpret what my love for small ball as a hatred for the home run. Home runs are great, they are exciting, and can happen on any pitch. Small ball takes time and happens more slowly. The potential issue with the home run and the teams which depend on them for their success is they have nothing to fall back on when their bats grow cold. Manufacturing runs can be accomplished multiple ways, whereas relying on home runs can only be accomplished in a singular way.
Whether or not the players who have been connected or are suspected of being connected to steroids should have their career accomplishments in the record books will remain a contentious topic. The steroid era has come, and more or less gone, and its impact on baseball will long be felt. Should Barry Bonds hold the record for most career home runs and most home runs in a single season? No and yes. No, because he cheated the game, its fans, and its records by his use of steroids to play longer, and to hit the ball harder and farther. He had career years at the end of his career, this does not happen naturally for a man as he enters his late 30’s. Yes, because if you start taking his records away where do you stop? He is not the only sinner in baseball history. Do you take away Pete Rose’s records for gambling while he was a manager? Mark McGwire’s home run records for his steroid use? Ty Cobb’s hits record because of his obvious racism and violence on the field and in the stands? So while I do not feel the steroid era players who broke into the upper echelon of the record books in part due to their use of steroids deserve the recognition other players have received for their accomplishments, the only alternative is to rewrite the record books. If you begin to rewrite baseball’s history and record book where do you stop?
The shifting of the prestige of the 500 home run club to the 600 home run club will undoubtedly have some unfortunate casualties. Reaching such a monumental career accomplishment will no longer carry the same amount of pomp and circumstance as it once did. The 600 home run club shrinks the membership of the elite sluggers back to a small enough size for fans to easily recite its members. This new gold standard for sluggers will also make it more difficult for players who choose to cheat to join this rarefied air. While it will not eliminate their inclusion, it will keep out the majority. Baseball changes with the times. The more centric the home run has become to how the game is played, the more players have focused on hitting home runs. The long ball is no longer the sole property of the big slugging first and third basemen or the powerful outfielders. Home runs have become a piece of every batter’s arsenal. The more home runs hit, the higher the career totals climb. While the home run is here to stay the numbers which a player must amass to be considered among the greatest of all-time also continues to rise. The 500 home run club was the gold standard for decades before the home run become more commonplace. More home run hitters in the game and greater advances in medical science have changed the record books and enabled players to stay on the field for more games a year and for more seasons. As baseball changes, so does it record books. The 500 home run club has become slightly too crowded, so now it is time for the 600 home run club to become the gold standard for sluggers in baseball history.