Another milestone, another yawn

The Baltimore Sun

When Roger Clemens went for his 350th career victory Wednesday night at Camden Yards, the ballpark was about two-thirds full and the excitement level for what could have been a rare piece of baseball history was not all that much greater than it would have been for a typical Orioles-Yankees game.

Want proof? Going into the Yankees series, the advance gate for last night's series finale was significantly larger than that for Clemens' potentially historic start. How do you figure that? No doubt, it would have been different at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park - the two ballparks where Clemens spent most of his great career - but the simple fact of the matter is that baseball fans are milestoned out.

The great hunt for round numbers has been going on since the game's Golden Age, and there was a time when fans from all over the major leagues would stop and express their awe at a 300th victory or a 500th home run.

That, of course, was before it happened every day.

I can remember what a big deal it was when Willie Mays hit his 500th and 600th career home runs, even though I didn't live in San Francisco. It was still a huge event when I covered Reggie Jackson's 500th homer, and the coincidence was quite notable when Rod Carew (3,000th hit) and Tom Seaver (300th win) had to compete for national headlines on the same afternoon.

(Trivia buffs take note: That day, Aug. 4, 1985, was the 23rd birthday of a budding young Red Sox ace who many thought would become a 300-game winner.)

Big statistical milestones still capture the imagination of hardcore ball fans, but I'm willing to bet that there were a surprising number of readers out there who didn't realize until yesterday that Frank Thomas was on the threshold of his 500th home run and Craig Biggio was creeping up on his 3,000th hit. News alert: Thomas got No. 500 yesterday afternoon and Biggio got No. 3,000 last night.

The home run glut of the past two decades - and the steroid shame attached to it - has left fans yawning at career achievements that once would have made a nation proud.

Sammy Sosa hit his 600th home run a week ago, and I'm already trying to remember what pitcher served it up. Ken Griffey Jr. could get there this year, too, which raises an impertinent question: If a guy who has played more than 111 games in just one season since 2000 can hit that many home runs, how tough can it be?

Don't misunderstand. I'm not dissing Griffey. He clearly is one of the most gifted players of any era, but the combination of factors that produced baseball's home run explosion (steroids, smaller ballparks, thin pitching) also produced a pervasive cynicism that has devalued the history of the sport.

It's mostly the steroid scandal, of course, which is best illustrated by the public ambivalence to Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's all-time home run record.

I suppose it's a positive sign that the same society that was so reluctant to embrace Aaron's record (because of racism, reverence for Babe Ruth or both) is largely refusing to embrace Bonds (because of steroid outrage or reverence for Aaron), but the net result is still negative.

Clemens might be the greatest pitcher in the history of the game, especially when you consider that he registered most of his 349 victories in an era that was tilted heavily in favor of hitters, and his latest attempt to become the first pitcher since Warren Spahn to reach 350 wins didn't even rate one of the top 10 headlines on the ESPN Web site the morning after.

Of course, Clemens has not been immune to steroid rumors. He reportedly was named in the infamous Jason Grimsley affidavit. He also has run afoul of some baseball purists with his on-again, off-again retirement and the special treatment he demanded to agree to comebacks with the Houston Astros and Yankees.

Still, the fact that baseball milestones don't carry the same weight that they once did is a simple matter of supply and demand. They have become too common.

The science of performance enhancement, legal and illegal, has inflated offensive statistics and let players extend their careers to the point where the old statistical standards seem almost quaint.

On the night Clemens went for career win No. 350, six other pitchers in their 40s were also scheduled to start major league games. Greg Maddux won No. 340, and Tom Glavine moved to within three wins of 300.

Great achievements all, but our obsession with round numbers clearly is in decline.

Wake me up when Clemens is going for No. 400 on his 50th birthday. Now that would be something.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Saturdays and Sundays.

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