There are two different kinds of reactions to 500 home runs. Here, a chart!
Thank you, octopus with a bow tie. I'm on the side of 500 is Interesting, obviously. Look at the danged names in the 500 Home Run Club. Mays. Mantle. Ruth. Schmidt. All of them a part of baseball's rich tapestry. All of them benefactors of the dinger arts.
But you will hear or read about people who take pleasure in waiving away the 500 home run club, both now in the post-Pujols glow and later when a member of the 500 club is up for Hall of Fame consideration.
"It doesn't mean what it used to."
"It's not the elite club it used to be."
"It's not a milestone that guarantees election into the Hall of Fame."
I don't disagree with the last point, but the first two annoy me. We're talking about dingers, people. Dingers. Diiiiinnnnnngers. Beautiful, majestic dingers. Baseballs that fly over the fence, each one attached to an announcer's breathless call, each one making tens of thousands of spectators gape up in amazement, each one turning the baseball into an intrepid explorer that seeks the space beyond the finite confines of the field. Baseballs that are done hit real hard like. Dingers.
Now I want to assign blame. Let's look for the guy who ruined everything. A list of the 500 Home Run Club members, in chronological order of entry:
|Ken Griffey, Jr.||6/20/2004|
You suddenly understand the impulse to say it doesn't mean what it used to. Ruth, Foxx, Ott, Williams, Mays, Mantle ... that's an unfathomable start to any list. But where did it go wrong? Where was the tipping point to make people grumble about the special accomplishment? Enhance.
Whoa, calm down, there. That's more than enough enhancing. My theory is this: Rafael Palmeiro was the tipping point. Rafael Palmeiro is where people started to mumble about 500 homers not being as special, where it stopped being a ticket to Cooperstown. Consider what he has going against him:
1. He was split equally between two franchises
He's part-Ranger, part-Oriole, but never wholly a part of one or the other. Not only that, but he was a member of both clubs at weird points in their respective franchise histories. Both the Rangers and Orioles were seen as also-rans when Palmeiro was with the team -- teams with tons of talent that had troubles making it out of the first or second round of the playoffs.
What does that have to do with dingers? No idea. But it makes a difference when your brain takes .2 seconds to evaluate a player's legacy. Mickey Mantle? Yankees great, all-time great, so great. Ernie Banks? Mr. Cub, so good, let's play two. Mike Schmidt? Phillies, Phillies, little dance when he hit 500, so much Phillies.
Rafael Palmeiro? Good for a really long time, I think, let me check.
Perception means a lot, and we're looking for the guy who created 500-homer cynics. The odd shuttling of Palmeiro between Arlington and Baltimore somehow made him seem less permanent.
2. He accomplished the feat in the same season as Sammy Sosa
Sosa wasn't a baseball pariah just yet, but there was minor grumbling about him. He was called Sammy Soso for a while, then you went to check your mail, and suddenly he had 500 home runs. How did that happen? When ... wait ...
But that wasn't the tipping point. Later that year, Palmeiro hit his 500th, and that was the perfect time to go, "Okay, now this is ridiculous." It's as much Sosa's fault as anyone's, but Raffy was the exclamation point at the end of the thought.
Of course. It's not just that the steroid era ruined the numbers for some folks, it's that Palmeiro is the perfect spokesperson for 2000s steroid use. He had a mid-30s power spike that was augmented by his home park and the league environments to make it look even more suspicious, too.
Even better, he stood in front of Congress and wagged his finger. That really, really rankled the people upset at the ethical issues surrounding performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro somehow became the perfect player to dismiss. He wasn't an all-time great before the drugs (like Bonds) and he wasn't a player who was never actually busted (like Sosa). He was the perfect player to dismiss if you think PEDs work like spinach with Popeye.
Not saying it's right. Just looking for explanations why it feels like Palmeiro is the tipping point for 500-homer cynicism.
4. Boner pills
As in, Rafael Palmeiro was in several ads for boner pills. Look, I don't want to diminish the medical triumph that has helped millions of men reclaim their virility. It's fun to type "boner" and it's fun to type out boner jokes about boner pills, but the drug is very, very important to a lot of people, and I respect that.
Even considering that, though, it makes it hard to take Palmeiro as seriously as the inner-circle Hall of Famers on that list. Maybe not for you, because you're a progressive, even-keeled sort. But for the people who spent most of that year making Rafael Palmeiro boner jokes. The man essentially took out full-page ads to announce he had problems getting an erection, and he did it for bushels and bushels of money. You might think it's unfair to use that against someone's legacy. That doesn't mean it didn't happen. It's something he's known for, almost above and beyond his amazing career.
That part up there where I mentioned you could look at a player's name and start rattling things off about them and their importance to their franchise? Viagra is one of the first things you can rattle off about Palmeiro, fair or not. Probably before the 500 home runs.
If some of the stories I've read are true, there's a good chance that Babe Ruth still has an erection. That's Palmeiro's competition. That's supposed to be his peer. I don't even know if we're talking about baseball right now, actually.
Add it up, and you have the player who made 500 home runs a "meh" event for people. For awful people. For awful, cynical people. I don't think it's right, and I'm not arguing that Palmeiro should be relegated to some subsection of baseball history. Just investigating the cynicism, that's all. I think it starts with Rafael Palmeiro.
Stay tuned for my next column, "The Man Who Ruined 3,000 Hits," which is about ... oh, dang it. Come on, Rafael.