I had been planning a longer piece on the historical significance of Alex Rodríguez‘s 600th home run, focusing specifically on the rapidly growing ranks of the four-, five-, and six-hundred home run clubs, but since I couldn’t possibly come with anything better or more thorough than Joe Posnanski’s recent column over at SI.com, I thought I might go in a different direction.
It used to be that hitting four-hundred home runs gave you an automatic ticket to Cooperstown, but then Dave Kingman had to go and mess things up by hitting 442 home runs. Since any rational person knew that Kingman most definitely did NOT belong in the Hall of Fame, the entrance requirements were rewritten. Now 500 was the milestone you’d have to hit to assure your place in the Hall, and for a long time that number seemed nonnegotiable. But you know what happened next.
If you take a look at the top twenty-five players on the all-time home run list and scan up starting with Eddie Murray’s 504 , you’ll see a host of names that will never be enshrined in Cooperstown. There’s certainly a lingering drug cloud that will keep several of them out, people like Barry Bonds and the Unholy Trinity of McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro, but there are others who simply don’t seem to belong. Gary Sheffield comes to mind, drugs or no drugs. And I know Jim Thome‘s had a nice career and will finish with more home runs than all but six or seven guys, but somehow I don’t think Hall of Famer when I look at him.
So what do 600 home runs mean for Alex Rodríguez? It was just a few years ago that people looked at him completely differently. Boxing had a string of Great White Hopes, but A-Rod was baseball’s Great Clean Hope. He was the one who could race to the top of the charts, surpassing Bonds and scoring a victory for what we hoped was clean baseball. (This, by the way, is the part where I resist the urge to launch into a diatribe on the hypocrisy of a sport that allowed amphetamine use for decades, or start talking about the slippery slope of ligament transplants and lasix surgery. But I digress.)
But with great hope comes great disappointment, and so it was with Rodríguez. The optimists among us suddenly had no ammunition against the pessimists. Maybe everyone really was juicing. Maybe nothing was real. And so when A-Rod came to bat with 599 home runs in Cleveland and Kansas City, people booed as they waited for history. There weren’t as many asterisks as we saw in the stands when Bonds was chasing 755, but they were definitely there.
So the question now is, will Alex Rodríguez be elected to the Hall of Fame? Even though he may end up with something in the neighborhood of 800 home runs, there are those who believe the doors to the Hall are closed to him forever. Buster Olney doesn’t think his colleagues will ever elect him, but Olney himself has voted for McGwire and plans to vote for Bonds, Sosa, Clemens, and A-Rod once they’re eligible. Here’s the money quote from his larger explanation:
I think most of the elite players were using performance-enhancing drugs, and within the context of that time — when baseball wasn’t doing anything to stop the growth of drug use — this was what the sport was. And we don’t know exactly who did what. There are a lot of superstar players who were broadly suspected within the sport of having used steroids, but they avoided the crossfire; the only difference between those guys and McGwire was that McGwire had Jose Canseco as a teammate. And here’s the other thing — we don’t know exactly who did what, and when they did it. So I think in order to have a consistent standard when considering the steroid-era players, you either have to vote for no one at all, or set aside the steroid issue and just vote for the best players of the era.
Alex Rodríguez, then, emerges as the ultimate test case. Most of the big-name steriod users saw their names dragged in the mud after their careers had ended. A-Rod had the sense to admit what he had done, which might count for something with some writers, and by the time he retires he will have played six to eight years — presumably clean — following that admission. Certainly some writers will never forget the stain, but I hope that enough do. Alex Rodríguez belongs in the Hall of Fame.
[Photo Credit: Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/Larry Roibal]