500 home run club losing its cachet

NEW YORK – The number doesn’t mean what it used to, though that goes for a lot of statistics in baseball. It’s just that 500 home runs, more than any offensive benchmark, signified something. It was Skull and Bones in its exclusivity and Ph.D. in its achievement.

Now it’s overrun with steroid cheats, who, in more naïve days, glistened like ice cubes that have since melted and ruined that glass of Johnnie Walker Blue.

New York Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield joined the club Friday night, flicking out his 500th over the left-field fence at brand-new Citi Field. At 40, Sheffield’s wrists still twitch with syncopation of a great jazz tune, the back-and-forth waggle a precursor to the barrel flying through the strike zone with unparalleled speed and catching hold of a mistake. Sheffield, like so many of his 500-homer brethren that admitted using steroids or are suspected of doing so, was born with such talent that performance-enhancing drugs were wholly unnecessary.

And yet here Sheffield is, the club’s 10th member in the last 11 years after the game’s first 120 years produced 15. Of the 10 to reach the milestone since 1999, six bathe in steroid suspicion: Sheffield (admitted but said it was inadvertent), Rafael Palmeiro (tested positive), Alex Rodriguez (tested positive), Barry Bonds (duh), Mark McGwire (visual and documented evidence) and Sammy Sosa (visual evidence).

Which either makes the accomplishments of the other four – Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Frank Thomas – all the more impressive or makes the inner cynic mistrust the veracity of anyone’s statistics.

“If anybody questions 500,” Sheffield said, “tell ‘em to go try it.”

It’s not questioning the accomplishment, per se. To hit 500 home runs takes innate aptitude and cultured longevity. Some home run hitters bomb away for a few years and flame out. Others are very good for a very long time, and that’s still not enough for 500. Sustained greatness is the ultimate testament in baseball, and prior to 1999, the 500-home run club embodied it.

“There are some unbelievable players on that list,” Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado said. “It’s not like somebody snuck on the list. It’s not a fluke. These aren’t one-hit wonders.

“Players in the last couple decades are a little bigger, a little stronger, have better equipment, better training, play in smaller ballparks, travel is easier.”

Delgado, incidentally, did not glance over at the elephant in the room with the enormous syringe in its posterior.

He is right, though, about the quality of players. The early incarnations of the 500-homer club were incredible. Until 1965, only four players comprised it: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott and Ted Williams. Over the next seven years, seven players hit their 500th home runs, proof that there can be a so-called golden age of home run hitting without any artificial help. For the following 27 years, all the way up to ’99, only four players hit their 500th.

And once Delgado becomes No. 26, either later this season or early next year – he’s 28 away – the wait for the next 500th home run could take some time.

Depending on how quickly Vladimir Guerrero fades, his 500th – fait accompli at one point – might never happen. He’s 107 away. Forget Andruw Jones, too, who is a part-time player and 128 shy of 500.

Barring a catastrophe, Albert Pujols is about as sure a thing in the 500 club as any active player. He’s 177 away and doesn’t turn 30 until January. Hard behind him are Lance Berkman (210 shy) and David Ortiz (211), and considering their age (33), that’s a mountain climb in sandals.

Adam Dunn is a born home run hitter who’s got 219 to go, and he’s a legitimate possibility. And then come the wild guesses.

Mark Teixeira, 29, with 295 left? Maybe.

Miguel Cabrera, 26, needing 321? Solid bet.

Ryan Howard, 29, only 322 shy? About 50-50.

Justin Morneau at 365, or Prince Fielder at 385, or Matt Wieters at … 500? Please, a little more time.

It took Sheffield 22 major league seasons, after all, to hit his 500th. He’s on his eighth team, and as much as that’s due to Sheffield’s propensity to speak out and his clamoring for money, don’t forget that the steroid era devalued the home run to the point where a player in the sport’s most exclusive club was cast aside seven times. Never did Sheffield spend more than 4½ years with a team. He is baseball’s greatest nomad.

Calls, accordingly, came from far and wide after Sheffield’s 500th. The number, however diminished it is in reality, still carries the sort of cachet that inspires 109 people to wish congratulations. Sheffield responded to each well-wisher, the glow of 500 keeping him awake long into the night.

“I don’t care how people regard it,” Sheffield said. “I know what I regard, and that’s that this is an incredible accomplishment.”

It is, of course. And, in a way, it isn’t. Decades from now, when we’re still arguing how to view this era, the 500-home run club will keep inspiring such debates. Hopefully by then we’ll have learned to order that glass of Johnnie neat.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Apr 18, 2009