Wednesday, August 11, 2010

600 Whatevers

A week ago, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez hit the 600th home run of his major league career. As a baseball lifer, with more passion for the game than most people I know, this should have been absolutely thrilling to me; a stand-still moment in time. I should have counted myself extremely blessed to live in the era in which A-Rod plays; to be able to witness only the seventh player to hit at least 600 home runs in his career; to look forward to telling my kids and grandkids that I witnessed this man's whole career.

Well, sadly, I guess "specimen" is a more appropriate description for A-Rod than "man" since he admitted in 2009 to using steroids -- and who knows what other kinds of performance-enhancing drugs -- earlier in his career. What I feel, when I think about A-Rod, as well as all the other guys who have climbed up the career home run charts, due in large part to PEDs, is absolutely cheated!

When I was 15 years old, back when home runs actually meant something, Hall of Famer Eddie Murray became just the fifteenth player in MLB history to hit at least 500 career home runs. I recall the summer of '96, counting down with each home run, hoping against all odds that the aging Murray would have enough in him to reach the legendary milestone that season. And reach it, he did...just barely I might add. Murray went on to retire with a grand total of 504 home runs and was appropriately elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2003. I never knew I'd look back on his career fourteen years later with more admiration than most of the seemingly much more talented players who came after him; players whose gaudy career numbers made Murray seem like a cheap utility player. Before Murray hit his 500th, the last player to do so was Mike Schmidt...nine years before. After Murray's 500th, a huge assortment of science-projects began topping 500 home runs with regularity. As each new season began, the question centered on who was closing in on 500 that year.

Soon thereafter, hitting 500 home runs became rather mundane. The club grew from fifteen members to twenty-five in short order. Clearly 500 homers -- an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame in years past -- was no longer good enough on its own. The attention soon turned to the new milestone of 600. Surely, that club would remain exclusive to only the most worthy of bashers, right?

Six year's after Eddie Murray's 500th, Barry Bonds -- a walking chemistry lab -- hit his 600th home run, and a few years later, his 700th, en route to breaking -- or should I say vomiting on -- the most hallowed record in all of professional sports: Hank Aaron's career home run record. After that, Sammy Sosa -- a man who pretended to forget how to speak English in order to avoid steroid use admission in court -- topped 600. The home run -- a once-difficult and well-respected feat of strength -- had officially been turned into an utter joke. I later realized just how far the love of home run milestones had fallen in the eyes of the public when Gary Sheffield hit his 500th home run in 2009 and I didn't even know about it. Turns out, the news was nothing more than a small blurb on ESPN. There was no grand build up to the moment, and no raucous after-party. I guess it figures; Sheffield had, not surprisingly, been long since under the suspicion of PED use as well.

There have been a few notable exceptions to the general home run malaise that has resulted from juiced up players hitting baseballs as though the outfield walls were only 20 feet away. Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr., and Frank Thomas -- three men who have never been linked to PEDs in their respective careers -- have hit major home run milestones in recent years, but, while celebrated, have sadly had their moments somewhat subdued most likely due to the culture created by players who chose to perform as machines rather than men.

The recent inclusion of Alex Rodriguez into the 600 home run club has sparked the debate on whether or not he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the end of his career. Some have said 600 homers is still 600 homers and that A-Rod belongs in the Hall. Others have said he is an admitted steroid user and should never have a chance at induction, regardless of how many baseballs he launches into orbit. No doubt, this is a debate that will trudge on for at least the next decade, though conventional wisdom says that A-Rod will never be a Hall of Famer. However, when it comes to voting players into the Hall of Fame, I don't believe we can simply judge all players the same way simply by the era in which they played. Some sportswriters have argued their rationale for voting for some of today's behemoths by stating that, since we don't know exactly who took what banned substance, one must either vote for the best players from "the steroid era" whether or not we know they used, or not vote for any of them at all. Why should some guys get blacklisted for being superstars of that era, while others, who may be just as guilty but never suspected of it, get a free pass into baseball's most exclusive club? A well-established sportswriter *cough* Buster Olney *cough* stated this as his rationale for why he has already voted for Mark McGwire and why he will vote for A-Rod when the time comes.

I fundamentally could not disagree more with this line of thinking. First off, we know from their own mouths that both A-Rod and McGwire have used PEDs. Admission equals guilt. Therefore, in this case, Olney can throw out the we-don't-know-who-did-what argument. In my opinion, neither A-Rod or McGwire should ever receive a single Hall of Fame vote. Secondly, the last time I checked, we still live in an innocent-until-proven-guilty society (at least on paper anyway). If a player has enough circumstantial evidence against him that proves to the voter that the player did not play clean, the voter should not vote for him. If a player has never been linked to any evidence of PED use, then no matter how big and buff he is (ie, Jim Thome & Frank Thomas), you vote for him. Does this mean that some players with false suspicisions against them will be held out of the Hall and that some steroid users with squeaky clean reputations will sometimes make the Hall? Perhaps. But hey, this isn't a perfect system, and baseball is not a game of perfection anyway. We've gotta work with the system we have. Olney's all-or-nothing approach to Hall of Fame voting is ridiculous. You don't see the police arresting everyone in a city because a few people fit the description of a bank robber; nor do you see the cops refusing to make a single arrest in order to be fair and consistent due to the fact that some people break the law and others don't. Additionally, anyone who thinks "the steroid era" in baseball is now over due to random drug testing is severely kidding themselves. As some writers have said in the past, "the chemists will always be a step ahead of the testers."

Congratulations on your 600th home run, Alex Rodriguez! Due to your foolish, cheating actions, however, your reward will be eternity in baseball purgatory.