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The 500 CROWD
Tom Verducci
April 14, 2003
Sammy Sosa is the latest to hit his 500th home run. With lots of others in line, is the number losing its luster?
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April 14, 2003

The 500 Crowd

Sammy Sosa is the latest to hit his 500th home run. With lots of others in line, is the number losing its luster?

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Sluggers ON DECK

Sixteen Players hit their 500th home runs in the 20th century. Eighteen have a chance to do so in this decade alone. Barry Bonds joined the list in 2001, Sammy Sosa did so last Friday, and here are the 16 other players who, based on their average homer output over the past four years, are on track to hit their 500th before 2010 (career home run totals through Sunday).

ETA
F0R 500

PLAYER

CAREER
HRs

AVG. HRs
1999-2002

AGE*

THE LINE

2003

Rafael Palmeiro

491

44

38

Still has the same sweet swing

 

Ken Griffey Jr.

469

30

33

Latest injury may push him to 2004

 

Fred McGriff

479

30

39

Nearing the end of the line

2004

None

2005

Juan Gonzalez

408

26

35

Pace slowed with 65 HRs in past three years

 

Jeff Bagwell

382

40

36

Seven straight years of 30-plus HRs

2006

Frank Thomas

377

23

37

Inconsistency, injuries are concerns

 

Jim Thome

334

43

35

HRs have increased four straight years

2007

Mike Piazza

347

37

38

Catcher eventually needs position switch

 

Gary Sheffield

341

35

38

Has made 500 homers a career goal

 

Manny Ramirez

310

39

34

Signed with Red Sox through 2008

 

Alex Rodriguez

301

48

31

On track to be youngest to reach 500

2008

Larry Walker

335

28

41

Interest in playing past age 40 a question

2009

Carlos Delgado

264

39

36

Future DH has six straight 30-HR seasons

 

Chipper Jones

253

36

36

Has hit 40 homers only once

 

Shawn Green

235

39

36

Three 40-HR seasons in past four

 

Jason Giambi

231

39

38

Yankee Stadium porch will help his bid

*Opening Day ago for ETA season

In hard currency more than prestige, the value of 500 home runs has been a source of recalculation ever since Aug. 11, 1929. On that day Babe Ruth belted a baseball onto Lexington Avenue outside Cleveland's League Park and, just after crossing home plate, said to a police officer, "I'd kinda like to have that one." The officer found the ball to be in the possession of a boy who didn't want to yield it. So he brought the young man into the stadium to meet Ruth, who offered him another ball that he had autographed, and a $20 bill. The Sultan of Swap got his historic ball.

The first to hit 500, Ruth, who lived to see only Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott follow him, could not have known that the 15th 500-homer ball, stroked by Eddie Murray in 1996, would fetch $500,000. Even so, the Bambino knew the attraction of a number rounder than himself. Five hundred is the J.Lo of three digits, with even more curves. The Indy and FORTUNE 500s co-opt the connotation of power from the number.

Seventy-four years after Ruth founded the 500 Home Run Club, however, the prestige of the number is being doubted for the first time in baseball circles. A reassessment is under way, not just because the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, member No. 18, joined the club last Friday with an opposite-field homer off Cincinnati Reds reliever Scott Sullivan at the week-old Great American Ballpark. (A 22-year-old fan, Zach Kirk, snagged the ball in the crowd, rejected an offer of $20,000 from someone in the pile-on before the blood was dry on his knuckles and has since decided to sell it on the open market, but apparently Sosa won't be making a Ruthian-type purchase. "What matters to me is I got 500," the 34-year-old Cubs slugger said. "He caught the ball. Whatever he wants to do with the ball, God bless him.")

No, the recalibration is due to Doppler-like forecasts that show Sosa is merely the leading edge of a front in which 500-homer balls could be dropping like hailstones. Rafael Palmeiro (nine jacks shy at week's end), Fred McGriff (21) and Ken Griffey Jr. (31) could join Sosa in an unprecedented foursome this year. ( Griffey's troubled quest suffered yet another setback last Saturday, when he dislocated his right shoulder while trying to make a diving catch in a loss to the Cubs, sidelining him for at least six weeks.) Never before have more than two players hit number 500 in the same season.

There's more. A dozen additional players, if they maintain their average home run output from the past four years, are on track to hit their 500th home run before the decade is up; none will be older than 38 at the start of his 500th-homer season (chart, page 58). Plus, Larry Walker of the Colorado Rockies will join that group if he maintains his pace through age 41. All of which means, when you count Barry Bonds, who whacked number 500 in 2001, there could be more players hitting their 500th home run in this decade (18) than there were in the previous century (16).

Mike Schmidt, member No. 14, with 548 homers, has suggested that home runs have become so common that 600 is the new 500 as the definitive status symbol. Frank Robinson, member No. 11, with 586, has called home run inflation "a disrespect" to greats of less hitter-friendly generations, such as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

"Inside of 10 years' time," says Cubs president Andy MacPhail, "we will have reassessed what 500 means, especially as it relates to getting into the Hall of Fame. It's likely that [hitting 500 home runs] is not going to be automatic anymore."

All 15 members of the 500 Club eligible for the Hall are enshrined. ( Mark McGwire, who will appear on the 2007 ballot, is a shoo-in after hitting 583; Bonds and Sosa are still polishing their Fame-certain r�sum�s.) In actuality, the demarcation for getting your ticket to Cooperstown punched has been 450 home runs—all 20 Hall-eligible players to reach that number have been enshrined. That streak will be in jeopardy when Jose Canseco and his 462 homers come before voters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America beginning in 2007 A repudiation of Canseco, who after turning 27 had one 100-RBI season while appearing in 71% of his games as a DH, would amount to a major redefining of the elite home run hitter.

McGriff may present the thorniest challenge yet to 500's prestige, if only because he never hit more than 37 homers in a season and has played for six organizations. But even in a world in which Brady Anderson can hit more homers in one season than Aaron ever did and Jay Buhner can hit 40 dingers more times than Ted Williams, Willie McCovey or Reggie Jackson did, can there be any illegitimacy to sustaining power long enough to hit 500?

There can be no doubting that we are witnessing the greatest extended era of power hitting, a run that began in 1993 with the first of two expansions in five years. On a per-game basis home runs last year (2.09) were up 45% from only 10 years before (1.44). The number of 30-homer hitters has grown from four among 16 teams in 1922 to six among 16 teams in 1952 to 14 among 20 teams in 1962 to 28 among 30 teams in 2002.

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