Home run numbers have totally lost their mystique (cont.)
We as fans have long totaled up home runs every way possible -- we total up home runs hit in games, home runs hit in weeks, home runs hit in months. During the season, we might double up home runs at the midway point of the season just to speculate how many a player might hit. We count home runs for seasons and careers. And every step along the way, home run numbers can mean something to baseball fans. The numbers can give us an image. Pick a number -- any number, 1 to 755 -- and it's like that number will represent a player to me.
1: Well, that's Duane Kuiper, of course, my hero. That's how many home runs he hit in his career.
23: I immediately think of Fred Lynn. He hit 23 home runs every season from 1984-87. He was old by then, beat up, a once-great player who was never quite the same after leaving Fenway and after hitting so many walls. He was a 23-home run hitter ... he's the image in my mind.
27: I think of Al Kaline. Sturdy, solid, throws to the right base, plays the game right, hits you 27 home runs.
32: I think of Eddie Murray. He always seemed to hit 32 home runs -- maybe 31 homers or 33 homers, but right around 32. And 32 home runs represents something: It's enough homers to make a star, but, generally speaking, not enough to make someone an MVP. And that's Eddie Murray: Finished top five in the MVP voting seven times, but never won the award.
40: That's Adam Dunn. He's hit exactly 40 in each of the last four years ... and he has a good chance to do it again this year.
51: That's Cecil Fielder, 1990, first player to hit 50-plus in 14 years, first American League player to hit 50 home runs since Maris and Mantle did it 30 years earlier. What's fun about Fielder's year is that it was his first full year in the major leagues. He had spent 1989 playing baseball in Japan, where they called him "Wild Bear."
56: Ken Griffey. He did it twice, back-to-back years, 1997 and '98.
Then, of course, there are the big numbers: 493 is Lou Gehrig, 536 is Mantle, 660 is Mays; 714 is the Babe; 755 is Hank Aaron and so on.
But even less famous home run numbers mean something: Say, 252 homers? Joe Torre, Bobby Murcer and Bret Boone are the three players who have exactly 252 homers (along with Pat Burrell, but he'll soon be gone from the club). Think about those three players and how different they were, how different their paths to that odd number of home runs were. Torre was a likable catcher from Brooklyn, he once hit into four double plays in a game, he became a legend managing the Yankees. Murcer was supposed to be a Yankees legend, the next Mickey Mantle, he had some sensational years for the Yankees in a low-scoring era and then was traded away ... he never quite recovered. Bret Boone was a third-generation Boone baseball player who developed big power later in his career ... Jose Canseco claimed Boone was a steroid user in his book Juiced, which sort of takes us back to the beginning of this story.
And I don't mean to say that home run numbers are lost now -- I still love them. But, yeah, they don't mean quite as much, can't mean as much. It has changed the last 10 years. Look: I can't really tell you I had much reaction when the New York Times reported Tuesday that Sammy Sosa tested positive in that "anonymous" drug test in 2003. I'm numb to steroid reports now, and I don't understand why anonymous sources continue to leak this information, and I don't have any earthly idea where this puts Sammy Sosa on the spectrum. I guess it takes him from the "never tested positive but was widely suspected of steroid use" list to the "reportedly tested positive in an anonymous test in 2003 and also was widely suspected of steroid use list." Or something.
Sosa denies everything, and he's innocent until proven guilty, but this is part of the problem with the Selig Era -- lines are blurred. What is innocent? What is guilty? How should we view Sammy Sosa if he took steroids? How should we view him if he did not and this report is wrong? Are we really going to have to endure a new name leaking out every couple of months for the next 10 years? Who the heck wants that? And, yet again people wonder: "What about the Hall of Fame?"
I guess over time I've just become desensitized to the whole thing. Many took steroids. Many celebrated the big numbers. The union and management did not put in testing for a long time. I don't mean to downplay it or blow it all of proportion either. I just have no rage or disbelief left to give. This is baseball in the Selig Era. Now, at the least, there's testing and there's awareness and there's a sense (right or wrong) that the numbers have pulled back a little bit.
But no matter what, it's not as much fun to count home runs. As of right now, Albert Pujols is on pace to hit 55 home runs. Mark Teixeira is on pace to hit 53 home runs. This stuff used to get me pretty fired up. Now ... eh.
And Sosa's remarkable home run numbers? They still surprise me, but probably not the way they once did. Once, a few years ago, I wrote a column about how much I loved the bubble gum they put in baseball card packs. Well, someone then sent me a huge box of that baseball card bubble gum. I was really pumped up. I chewed the gum and chewed it, and soon my tongue was raw, and my jaws were sore and the gum which had thrilled me as a boy, well, yeah, I got sick of it. I guess this is the same thing.
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