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Raising the Bar.
Posted Wednesday, June 23, 2004

by Bill Hogan


 
 

Ken Griffey, Jr. hit the 500th home run of his career on Sunday. The 20th player to reach the milestone, he instantly became a welcomed member of one of baseball's elite clubs.

Over 100 years of Major League Baseball. Thousands of the best ballplayers in America stepping up to the plate and only 20 have ever hit 500 or more home runs. That's one heck of an achievement.

 
 


Certainly, anyone who is able to accomplish such a feat is a shoo-in to be a first ballot Hall of Fame selection when his playing days are over. No other criteria need to be considered. 500 home runs – you're in.

Every single player that has hit 500 home runs and is eligible for nomination is in the Hall of Fame. That pretty much says all that needs to be said on the matter. Had Griffey's plaguing injuries kept him from ever reaching 500, he'd still be a sure thing to make it to the Hall.

Griffey was arguably the best overall baseball player in the 1990's. He did it all - in the field and at the plate. He led the American League in home runs 4 times between 1994 and 1999. He's an eleven time All Star, won 10 Gold Glove Awards and was named the AL Most Valuable Player in 1997. There is no question he will eventually end up in Cooperstown.

What about the hoard of ballplayers who will reach the magical 500 plateau in the next 10 or 20 years? Will they be considered worthy based on that solitary – albeit impressive – statistic? Fred McGriff will reach 500 very shortly. Is he a Hall of Fame caliber player?

The problem with using a career home run total as the only measuring stick to whether a player is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration is that – frankly – the home run has become ubiquitous. So much so that even Griffey's recent barrier breaking round tripper was largely met with little more than a passing interest by the average baseball fan.

We witnessed, over the past six years, too much of a good thing. We've become oblivious to the home run much in the way that we've turned a blind eye to internet banner ads and reality television shows. The long ball just doesn't create the spectacle that it once did.

Nobody thought Babe Ruth's single season home run record of 60 would ever be broken. That's why Roger Maris created such a stir in 1961 when the magic number became 61. It took Mark McGwire 37 years to surpass that mark. But, since 1998, three different players have surpassed Maris' 61 a total of five times and now the record stands at 73.

Home runs really don't impress us any more. They've become more expected than appreciated. And it's not just the superstar sluggers that are putting up big home run totals. These days, just about anyone who steps to the plate is capable of hitting one out of the park.

Twenty years ago, Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy led the National League in home runs with 36. They were the only players in the league to finish the 1984 season with 30 or more home runs. Last year, 14 National Leaguers and 28 players overall tallied 30 or more home runs for the season.

I'm not sure why it seems to be so much more commonplace to watch a baseball soar over the centerfield wall. Smaller ballparks, bigger players (some naturally bigger, some made bigger through the use of steroids), harder baseballs, mediocre pitching – take your pick. But it's clear that the home run has lost a lot of its dramatic appeal.

Babe Ruth led the American League in home runs in 1918 when he smacked 11 for the Boston Red Sox. Eighty-six years later, it'll take somebody hitting 80 for the season or breaking Hank Aaron's career record for fans to get real excited about a home run. (Unless, of course, it wins game 7 of the Series for your team.)

Because there are only 20 players in the history of the game to ever hit 500 or more home runs, Griffey's achievement is truly a milestone – for now. But it's evident that the home run bar has been raised. Eventually the requirements for entry into the Hall of Fame will be raised as well. Players will need more than "500 Home Runs" on their resume.

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