The Beckett Blog


A-Rod hits home run No. 600 — and it’s not special at all by Chris Olds

By CHRIS OLDS | Beckett Baseball Editor | COMMENTARY

It ain’t what it used to be.

That’s the easiest way to sum up the 600 home run club — not because of suspicions of performance-enhancing drugs or steroids, but because they are a reality reflected in the record books.

There was a time when just three players in baseball history had reached that plateau, three unquestioned legends in the game — Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.

Sure, we have since heard other legendary tales about Ruth beyond the field. And sure, we have heard about the ugly things that Aaron faced in his march toward the top of the record books. And, of course, collectors have heard their stories about Mays at card shows. But those three players’ performances were never in question.

And, again, 600 ain’t what it used to be.

In 1931 at age 36, Ruth became the first player in MLB history to reach the mark. Thirty-eight years later, in 1969, a 38-year-old Mays joined him. Two years after that, in 1971, so did a 37-year-old Aaron.

For 31 years, Aaron, Ruth and Mays were the only members of that elite class of hitter, unquestioned royalty of the game. Countless other greats — Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle and more — all came up short despite having careers of longevity and consistency that easily produced Hall of Fame results.

Then, the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs arrived and it changed baseball’s landscape at first with annual assaults on single-season marks, then on the cumulative numbers. (And not just for sluggers, either.) While not every player who arrived at the immortal gates of 600 was linked to wrong-doing, a majority of them have been and it’s been an unfortunate game of dominoes watching once seemingly significant marks fall and the historic and once-hallowed ranks toppled.

In 2002, Barry Bonds reached 600 en route to topping everyone with 762. In 2007, Sammy Sosa reached the mark. In 2008, Ken Griffey Jr. joined the club.

And, of course, on Wednesday Alex Rodriguez joined the club at age 35 — the youngest member of them all.

An elite group that took decades to produce and what stood for three more decades after that — a trio of sluggers with 600 home runs — has more than doubled to seven members in less than a decade.

Are players that much better? Are pitchers that much worse? Yes and no. The game has changed with medicine and technology helping keep players on the field unlike ever before — benefits that can be illegally abused.

The latest member is Rodriguez, reaching the plateau a year and a half after he admitted using PEDs during his career. Bonds is embroiled in the BALCO investigation and will be in a court room early next year for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury when he denied knowingly taking PEDs. Sosa has been tabbed as one of the 104 players who tested positive for steroids when baseball called for anonymous survey testing in 2003 — and those numbers of players using (more than three per team) prompted the implementation of testing in MLB.

Within a few more years, there might be a couple more members of the 600 home run club, tripling the total that we started this century with. After that, realistically, it could be several more years before Albert Pujols, now with 392 home runs at age 30, reaches the mark.

If he even reaches the mark. (While we’re talking about it, he’ll need roughly 40 a year for another decade to top Bonds. I doubt that gets done, either.)

As for the hobby, the magic and mystique of the single-season home-run races created plenty of instant gratification and sparked plenty of business — just like it did for Major League Baseball. The magic of Mark McGwire and Sosa in 1998, the bombastic blasts into McCovey Cove from Bonds in 2001 and the successive assault on the record books through Aug. 7, 2007, when Bonds hit No. 756, can’t be topped, can’t — won’t — be replicated presuming players are clean.

Not only have collectors and fans been robbed of the magic of that next single-season chase — does Rodriguez’s 763rd to come sometime in, say, 2016, after feel any more “right” than Bonds’ mark? — but baseball has been robbed of its most valuable asset, its reasonable comparisons, its linkage, to the past.

The comparisons of the game now to the game of just a few years ago aren’t valid — nor are allusions that the game is no longer pure. (Frankly, it probably never was in varying ways.) Gone with that, in the hobby, in my mind is some fans’ willingness to jump aboard said bandwagons when the records are challenged. Why? Because we’ve been there, done that — and it left a bad taste in our mouths the last time around. At least this time, A-Rod won’t be found out to be just another cheat — he already admitted it and says he no longer is one.

A-Rod still is only one of a handful of players who hit 600 home runs, but the magic isn’t the same because we know the truth about how a good number of them happened. Many a player has cheated — undoubtedly some in the Hall of Fame, a realistic possibility because baseball never had rules against steroids or other otherwise-illegal substances.

Am I one for wiping the record books clean or applying asterisks? No — what happened happened. However, given the game’s past, perhaps some new context could be taken, particularly once HGH testing becomes a requirement for more than just minor league players. (Testing for minor leaguers began in July.)

Perhaps at that time, when and if it comes, baseball starts anew with its marks — not erasing its past, just starting a new chapter and new set of marks in the record book. It’s a chance to see how a new, presumably clean, generation compares over the years while also allowing for some of that single-season magic to possibly return. (And, maybe, after time, some of the magic will return for pitchers, none of whom can touch the records of the 1800s — 59 victories in a season, anyone?)

“Talking about the past” was once taboo to some — but it isn’t any longer. (McGwire admitted his wrongdoings earlier this year.) Rodriguez did the same. Bonds might get that chance — when he is forced to — in a courtroom. Some have talked, others probably will, placing their careers in different contexts than the statistics say. But, then again, based on the numbers, many of us already realize that.

So, is 600 the new 500 — and 700 the new 600?

Undoubtedly. And, even so, it’s still not the same.

Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an e-mail to him at colds@beckett.com. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

GREAT ARTICLE AND sadly very true. Ken Griffey doing it was great. but the rest phooey

Comment by MICHAEL RUNYON

I love that 1973 Topps card of Ruth/Aaron and Mays. It was one of my favorite cards growing up and now I have one back in my collection. It will be interesting who else will join the 600 Home Run club, we may be stuck on 7 for a while until Pujols in my opinion. Home Run numbers are starting to drop off and I’m not so sure that Thome or Manny will get to 600.

Comment by Tim Lindgren

Willie Mays admitted that his doctor gave him something and he wasn’t sure what it was when he was interviewed on “Costas Now”….check the transcripts

Comment by jay mccolister

yeah because the guys that played before the steroid era never cheated ………… come on folks wake up ……..

Comment by Anonymous




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