Honest runs

The Baltimore Sun

If you were not paying close attention, you probably missed much of the countdown to Manny Ramirez's imminent entry into the once-exclusive 500 Home Run Club.

The Boston Red Sox arrived in town for a four-game series at Camden Yards with their big-swinging left fielder sitting at 499, which used to be considered the threshold of every power hitter's dream, but - sadly - 500 just ain't what it used to be.

It was a pretty big deal when Willie Mays and Hank Aaron did it in the 1960s. It was still a big deal when Reggie Jackson did it in the 1980s. And it was pretty cool when Eddie Murray came back to do it as an Oriole in 1996.

Of course, that all happened before the radical stat inflation of the past decade or so, which has devalued one of the most hallowed round numbers in the sport.

Ramirez deserves great credit for his terrific career, even if his mercurial personality has made him hard for some fans to embrace. He is headed for the Hall of Fame, barring an unforeseen appearance on 60 Minutes, and he will go down in history as one of the most feared hitters of his generation. He just picked the wrong generation if he was hoping to get all the recognition he probably is due.

The 500-homer plateau used to look a lot higher when the truly elite sluggers occasionally mixed in a 40-homer season. Now, in the aftermath of an era in which Sammy Sosa averaged 61 homers over a four-year period (1998-2001) and hit 332 of his 609 career homers in just six seasons, it's going to take some time to get things back into perspective.

In one respect, it is simply a matter of supply and demand. When Mays reached 500 in 1965, he was only the sixth player in major league history to get there, and he was considered a threat to break Babe Ruth's all-time record. He would soon be followed by Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and several other contemporaries, but the achievement still had an aura when Reggie joined the club in 1984 and Mike Schmidt hit No. 500 three years later.

Ramirez will be No. 24, the same number he wears on his back. That's still heady company, but you can make the case that 600 is the new 500, especially after Barry Bonds supplanted Hank Aaron as the all-time major league leader and Sammy Sosa reached 600 homers last season. Ken Griffey Jr. entered this weekend just two homers from becoming only the sixth player to make it to that level.

If only the milestone glut were the only issue. Every major baseball achievement of the past decade is going to be viewed through the prism of the steroid era, and rightfully so. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig hoped to bring some closure to the performance-enhancement scandal with the George Mitchell investigation but succeeded only in putting some of the gory details on the record. The Mitchell Report simply confirmed what everyone already knew about baseball's home run explosion but didn't pretend to be a comprehensive account of the sport's descent into the steroid abyss.

So forgive baseball fans if they aren't quite ready to embrace the latest home run milestones, even if Ramirez got to this point without ever hitting more than 45 homers in a season and Griffey's name has never come up in any of the various steroid investigations.

The steroid era is forever going to be remembered as the steroid era, and everyone who played in it has been burdened with some measure of guilt by association. The well-earned public cynicism about the inflated home run numbers is unfortunate for those who didn't give in to steroid temptation and those players from earlier eras whose accomplishments have been diminished in comparison.

Ramirez and Griffey probably deserve better, but so does someone such as Frank Robinson, who hit nearly 600 homers and amassed nearly 3,000 hits, only to have his status as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport diluted by a crowd of milestone makers who - for lack of a less-cliched way to say it - will never be in his league.

That's just the way the baseball world has turned, but we don't have to like it.


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

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