Home run numbers have totally lost their mystique in the Selig Era
No other sport has anything like the home run; no other stat counts quite as well
We as fans have long totaled up home runs every way possible
Sosa's home run numbers have always shocked me, but now it's just not as fun
There is never a time -- never a time -- when I look at Sammy Sosa's page on Baseball-Reference.com and do not come away with a shock. Sure, I know this stuff. I KNOW Sosa beat Roger Maris' famed 61-homers-in-a-season three times in his career (as many as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds combined). Three times.
I KNOW he hit 609 home runs in his career (man, 600 home runs; even as I type the words, they shock). I KNOW that from 1996 through 2003 -- just eight seasons -- he hit more home runs than Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, Al Kaline, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby and a bunch of other Hall of Famers hit during their entire careers.
In fact, he hit more home runs in those eight seasons (408 homers) than Babe Ruth did in his best eight-year stretch (367, 1920-27). More than Barry Bonds hit in his best eight-year stretch (369, 1997-2004). More than Mark McGwire's best stretch (354) or Jimmie Foxx's (348), or Mickey Mantle's (320), or Willie Mays' (303), or Ralph Kiner's (329), or Jim Thome's (330) or well, anyone else's.
I KNOW these things, but they jolt me a bit every time. Sammy Sosa's career is a perpetual surprise, sort of like how watching the movie This is Spinal Tap always gives me a line I never quite noticed before. It's a strange thing, I never look at a United States map and think, "Holy cow, I didn't realize that New York was east of Chicago." But I always look at Sammy Sosa's career numbers and think, "I cannot believe the guy hit more than 60 home runs THREE times."*
*Five other baseball players whose numbers constantly surprise me:
1. Joe Sewell: In his long career, he struck out 114 times. That's his WHOLE CAREER. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is 842-114, and in 1925, when he had 699 plate appearances, he struck out four times.
2. Ted Kluszewski: Since 1950, there have been only three seasons where a player hit 40-plus homers while striking out fewer than 40 times. Those three seasons were all by Big Klu. As an aside to an aside, he was famed for his big arms -- he would walk around with rolled up sleeves -- and when he was the hitting coach for the Big Red Machine, he would walk up to people, flex his arm and ask the riddle: "Do you know what this is?" The answer: "A Polish joke stopper."
3. Nolan Ryan: From 1971 through 1981, Ryan led the league in strikeouts seven times. He led the league in fewest hits per nine innings seven times. But he led the league in WALKS eight times and his record was only 176-148.
4. Gaylord Perry: From 1969 through 1975, he threw 300-plus innings every year but one. The amazing part isn't that he threw the spitball. The amazing part is that his arm stayed attached.
5. Stan Musial: His stats page is just a symphony of numbers -- the man led the league in every single thing except homers and stolen bases. In his most famous year, 1948, he finished second in home runs and led the league in hits, doubles, triples, runs, RBIs, total bases, extra base hits, runs created, OPS+, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, an amazing achievement. But here's something just as amazing: He led the league in EVERY ONE OF THOSE CATEGORIES at least one other time in his career.
Here's the thing about Sosa's surprise home run numbers: They're not much fun now. This isn't specifically about Sosa. One of the enduring byproducts of the Selig Era is that home run numbers are simply not as much fun. No matter where you may stand on the whole performance-enhancing drug issue -- maybe you are sickened by steroid use, maybe you don't care at all, maybe you are in the middle -- it's clear that the wonder of a player having a huge home run season is mostly gone.
Not to go all nostalgic, but sure, I remember being a kid when George Foster had his 52 homer season, when Dave Kingman had 29 home runs at the All-Star break, when Mike Schmidt hit four home runs in a game* ... these things ignited the imagination. This was one thing baseball had that no other sport had. (Yes, it was huge when O.J. went for 2,000 yards; yes, Gretzky's preposterous 1981-82 season when he scored 50 goals in 39 games was exciting; yes, I remember when David Thompson scored 73 points on the final day of the NBA season in an effort to win the scoring title -- he lost anyway because George Gervin scored 63 later that same day. One thing the Ice Man could do was he could finger roll.)
*When Schmidt hit those four home runs -- that was in 1976 -- he was the eighth guy to do it since 1900. And that was a fairly well-known baseball trivia answer during my childhood: Lou Gehrig, Chuck Klein, Pat Seerey, Gil Hodges, Joe Adcock, Rocky Colavito, Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt. Then Bob Horner did it. So that made nine.
Four guys have done it since, and how many casual baseball fans could name them: Hard Hittin' Mark Whiten, Mike Cameron, Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado? You probably remember Cameron and Green had their four-homer games within three weeks of each other ... I think in many ways that was the point when a lot of baseball fans, rightly or wrongly, said, "OK, this home run thing is officially ridiculous now."
But in my mind, no other sport has anything quite like the home run. No other statistic counts quite as well. You don't have to average homers by game to have them make sense like you do basketball points or rushing yards. You don't have to double-count homers like you do touchdowns (if a running back scores, the offensive line and play-caller have to get some credit) or goals (which generally feature an assist). A homer is all yours.
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