This Saturday, I was watching the Yankees face the Rangers when Rafael Palmeiro followed Ruben Sierra’s homer with one of his own. His solo shot cut the Yankee lead to 4-3 in a game the Yanks eventually pulled out in 10 innings.
The Rangers’ first baseman hit a fly ball that went over Raul Mondesi’s head and squeezed inside the right field foul pole. The Ballpark at Arlington blares the theme from The Natural and Rafi rounds the bases. Then, the crowd goes nuts as the “7” in the number “497,” as in the amount of Palmeiro’s career homers, drops down in center field.
Wait, that cannot be right. Rafael Palmeiro has 497 homers? Yup, Palmeiro is three dingers away from a benchmark that has guaranteed Hall of Fame status. It gets worse. Sammy Sosa already hit No. 500 this year and Fred McGriff is at 480. If Ken Griffey Jr. could ever stay in the lineup, he would get there soon; he has 469.
I am not saying these guys are not good players. Palmeiro has a sweet swing and put some great seasons together with the Orioles and Rangers in the late ’90s. Sosa spent the last five seasons on the biggest homer-hitting binge in history. The Crime Dog was a stud on a dominant string of Braves teams, while Junior was the next great player until he landed himself in Cincy.
A milestone that once defined greatness is about to be cheapened. Coming into this season, the 17 members of the 500-home run club included 15 Hall of Famers and two certain first ballotees: Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. Retiring with 500 used to mean you could book a hotel in Cooperstown five years in advance. That should not be the case anymore.
Sammy Sosa will get in, especially if he keeps stringing big seasons together. Sosa’s role in the 1998 record chase and his seasons since then more than makeup for his first nine years in the league. Ken Griffey Jr. was a dominant player and should get in eventually.
Palmeiro and McGriff are entirely different stories. Both are quality players but not two of the all-time greats. They are sub-.300 hitters and honestly never dominated baseball. Instead, they have taken advantage of an era of juiced baseballs, diluted pitching, and small fields.
Palmeiro in particular has all factors in his favor. He plays in a ballpark that yielded a Major League leading 245 homers last year. Meanwhile, he clearly has dinger on his mind when he steps to the plate. We are talking pop out or homer each time he comes up. The numbers prove it.
Palmeiro’s career ground ball to fly ball ratio is .81, but last year it dropped to an unprecedented low of .48. That means Palmeiro has about the same chance of putting the ball on the ground as that violin/fiddle guy from this weekend’s Spring Fling has of getting another gig with Wilco.
No question that 500 has lost its luster. Looking at the all-time list, Jose Canseco almost made it. He was at 462 when he was “blackballed” from baseball. Does Jose deserve to be in the Hall? No. He belongs in the Hall like Larry Eustachy belongs at random Big 12 parties.
I guess the meaning of numbers and records gradually changes over time. It is unfortunate to see a number that was an accurate measure of greatness throughout baseball’s history become next to meaningless. Juan Gonzalez is at 405 and will be at 500 in three or four seasons. Within the next decade, more and more players will join the club.
As Palmeiro moved within three of the “milestone,” it was interesting to note that a player in the opposite dugout is within three of another mark that still retains significance. At some point this season, probably soon the way the Yankees are playing, Roger Clemens will pick up his 300th career win.
If anything, the 300-win club is more exclusive than ever with the advent of the five-man rotation. Clemens will be the 21st member. Within two seasons, Greg Maddux, with 275 wins, should join him. These two are probably the best pitchers of our time, combining for 10 Cy Young Awards. Tom Glavine is at 243 and had a chance to make it until he joined the Mets. Now, he will be lucky to reach 250. Nobody else is even close.
For the foreseeable future, the 300-win club will be reserved for the truly greatest pitchers, much like the 500-homer club used to be for hitters.