Lamentations on the 500 Home Run Club
Joe Posnanski ruminates on the impending 600th home run of Alex Rodriguez, likely to be surrendered this weekend by one of Kansas City's many bad, bad pitchers, or perhaps their one good one. Dave Pinto thinks he's making too big a deal about it:
Baseball goes through cycles. There was a high home run cycle in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s been a high home run cycle in the 1990s and 2000s. I suspect there will be another one in the 2030s and 2040s.
This is not precisely true. Baseball has gone through cycles, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we can expect the same going forward. If you're going to suggest that, you need a better reason than: "Well, it's happened before".
I would posit that the McGwire/Bonds/A-Rod generation is different from the influx of 500-clubbers from 1965-71 in a couple of ways. That generation of players (Mays, Aaron, Mantle, Robinson, Killebrew, Matthews, and Banks) was all born between 1931 and 1936. (Personally, I would add McCovey, born in 1938 to that group too, even though he didn't hit his 500th til 1978).
The current group is bracketed by McGwire (1963) and A-Rod (1975), a much wider range.
Oddly enough, only two players from the Baby Boom generation, Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt, made the cut, even though you might expect that the deepening talent pool would have allowed more players with that kind of talent to find their way to the majors. Evidently the efforts by the Powers-that-(ML)Be to restore some balance to the pitchers in the 1960s and 1970's helped the Baby Boom pitchers a great deal more. But I digress.
Anyway, you'll notice that five of those eight players from the 60's and 70's are black, and would therefore not have had the chance to play in the majors 25 years earlier. There was, as we now know, tremendous talent in the Negro Leagues that never got the chance to compile numbers like that, or else Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston or someone else might have joined the club sooner.
That Mays/Mantle/Aaron generation was the first one in which young, black athletes got the chance to play most or all of their careers in the majors, instead of in the Negro Leagues and/or barnstorming. They had access to better medical care, earned more money, and generally had an easier life that made it possible to stay in shape and play into your 40's. That made for a huge influx of talent, more or less all at once, and that group all happened to hit that milestone about the same time because they'd all been playing about the same length of time, and were around the same age.
Offense did kind of go down after that for a while, or really had been going down for a while, since the early 60's, which depressed the numbers of those who could join the club (only Schmidt and Reggie in the 1980's). But baseball was sort of wallowing, losing market share to the NBA and especially the NFL, embroiled in cocaine scandals, gambling scandals, collusion scandals, and it appears that MLB wanted to get the fans' focus back on the field.
Somehow, MLB seems to have changed the fabrication of the baseball, or something, because around 1993, BABIP numbers took a sudden and irreversible jump up. It wasn't the dilution of pitching talent thanks to expansion, because it had never happened in an expansion year before, and would not happen again in 1998. It wasn't the ballparks because the new ones didn't all open up that year. It wasn't steroids, at least not yet.
The only theory that seems to make any sense is that they started winding the balls tighter, or making them of a different kind of yarn, or cork, or something. And before you ask, no I don't have any proof.
Not that it matters anyway. If MLB wants to make the balls differently to make the game more offense-oriented, that their prerogative. I'm OK with it. I wish they'd been honest about it, but I sort of understand why they wouldn't.
The more sinister thing - the thing that had numbed us all to the home run total, as Posnanski says, has been the steroids. Of the ten players who have joined the 500-homer club since 1999, seven of them have some taint of the steroid scandal. And would we really be all that surprised if someone told us that Thome, or The Big Hurt or even Junior was also tainted? Probably not.
So of course people don't care. This generation has sapped all the wonder out of the achievement. With the Mays/Mantle generation of 40 years ago, unless you were an outright bigot, you must have felt that there was something right about these men being allowed to compete on the same field, compile similar - and similarly impressive - numbers. That was how it should have been all along.
But this? McGwire, Sosa, Palmiero, A-Rod, and the rest, all on steroids or HGH or some cocktail of the two? That's not how it's supposed to be. We may be impressed still, and we may cheer for the guy on our team, but we've got to ladle in a healthy dose of skepticism with that. We just don't know what to believe anymore. Maybe we never will again.
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