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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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For a player to maintain that kind of pace over a long career, however, remains difficult. Of the 16 players following in the tracks of Bonds and Sosa toward 500 this decade, how many will get derailed? Surely some will ultimately be compared less to Sosa and likened more to Canseco, Albert Belle, Dale Murphy and Darryl Strawberry—all of whom failed to sustain their power or health through their 30s.

"Five hundred is legit, still," Cubs manager Dusty Baker says. 'A lot can happen over a career. There are no guarantees. I remember when Bob Horner was supposed to be a lock. To get that many you've got to continually make adjustments, and you've got to keep doing it year after year. It doesn't happen by accident."

Canseco and Palmeiro were born less than three months apart in Cuba in 1964. By age 24 Canseco had outhomered Palmeiro 111-25. It was at that time that the Cubs traded Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers in a nine-player deal in which Chicago's key acquisition was reliever Mitch Williams. "They didn't give me the chance to develop," Palmeiro says of the Cubs. "That's O.K. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, because they didn't know what they had."

At week's end Palmeiro had hit 466 home runs since that trade. McGriff had hit all 479 of his homers after the New York Yankees traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1982. Sosa had hit 499 home runs since future Commander in Chief George W. Bush, then general partner of the Rangers, oversaw his trade to the Chicago White Sox in 1989. Of course, on Jan. 3, 1920, after hitting 49 homers with the Boston Red Sox through 1919, Ruth was traded to the Yankees, for whom he swatted 659. Seventy years later Boston traded Jeff Bagwell, who has hit all 382 of his homers with the Houston Astros and someday may join the distinguished company of 500-home-run hitters given up on too early.

Palmeiro, McGriff, Sosa and Bagwell all were first traded before ballparks, favoring offense and more intimate seating, grew smaller, and players, through advances in nutrition, training and supplements, grew bigger. "The way the game is going," New York Mets lefthander Tom Glavine says, "I think it's safe to say you're going to see fewer pitchers win 300 games and more and more hitters hit 500 home runs."

As recently as 1986, 300-game winners outnumbered 500-home-run hitters 19 to 13. This may become the first season ever in which the two clubs have equal membership rolls (chart, right), even if Roger Clemens gets the five wins he needs to become the 21st 300-game winner. Greg Maddux (273 wins) might join him next season, but only two other pitchers are even on the radar screen for the rest of this decade: Glavine, 37, who estimates he would need four or five seasons to get the 57 wins he needs, and Randy Johnson, 39, who would need to average more than 15 wins a year through age 44 to pick up the 76 he needs for 300.

In Ruth's day, when the 300 Club outnumbered the 500 Club 11-1, did anyone devalue 300 wins? And is Sosa less deserving than the lefthanded-hitting Ott, who hit 63% of his homers in the Polo Grounds, where the rightfield foul pole stood only 258 feet from home plate? (No other 500 Club member hit more than 57% of his home runs at home.) Did anyone suggest that 500 home runs had become too easy in 1971, when Robinson and Harmon Killebrew capped a run of seven new members in a seven-year window?

Each of Sosa's 16 plate appearances this season before he slammed number 500 were charged with excitement, even if Sosa stayed cool. "It's not like it's going to be my last game," he said two days before the milestone. "I've got a lot more to do."

Like walking on the moon, becoming a millionaire or running a sub-four-minute mile, hitting 500 home runs has, no matter its familiarity by now, an indomitable distinction. "Why do people want to change what 500 means?" says Mets coach Don Baylor. "Five hundred is like 2,130 or 56. It's still magic."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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