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May 14, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

It's a Hard Game, Folks

by Joe Sheehan

Not long ago, with offensive levels rising and some of the greatest players in the game's long history performing at their peak, speculation was rampant that the game's most hallowed records--most notably Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs--were in severe jeopardy.

Maybe not.

  • Mark McGwire, whose 135 home runs in 1998 and 1999 made him the favorite among Aaron challengers, will reach the All-Star break having hit three home runs in the previous calendar year. The question with McGwire now isn't whether he can he catch Aaron; it's whether, with 555 home runs, he can catch Reggie Jackson at 563 for sixth all-time.

    Even if McGwire plays the second half of this season and eventually returns to semi-regular status, I seriously doubt he's going get 1,800 more at-bats in his career, and that's about the bare minimum he would need to make a run at Aaron.

  • Ken Griffey, who was considered a likely Aaron challenger from about 1992 onward, thanks to his early start and significant power, is going have his fourth straight season of diminishing home-run totals. Griffey slipped from 56 in 1998 to 48 and 40 in the next two seasons, and is going to max out around 350 at-bats this year.

    Of course, McGwire has shown us that off-years due to injury in your early thirties don't have to mean an irreversible decline, so it would be silly to write off Junior. Still, his established level of performance isn't what it was in, say, 1999, and chasing a record like Aaron's can go from "difficult" to "impossible" very quickly as opportunities--at-bats--are lost forever.

  • Frank Thomas, who after 1997 looked like he would be one of the four or five best hitters ever, will enter 2002 coming off three off-years in the previous four. His career .321/.440/.579 still marks him as an inner-circle Hall of Famer--Thomas's 1991-97 run is one of the best peaks in history--but his chance to reach significant thresholds in major categories has dwindled dramatically.

  • Albert Belle was a long shot to catch Aaron, but after his monster 1998 appeared to be a shoo-in for 500 home runs and at least a candidate for 2,000 RBI. A degenerative hip ended not only those possibilities, but his career as well. Belle is not even a lock for the Hall of Fame, given his short career and unpopularity with the voters.

What's weird, at least for those of us who take the fragility of pitchers for granted, is that the current crop of all-time mound greats haven't met with the same problems. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux continue to make steady progress towards 300 wins, pitching at a level just a bit below their amazing peaks. Randy Johnson, whose back troubles seemed certain to shorten his career a few years back, is marching towards 4,000 strikeouts and possibly a third straight Cy Young Award.

The point? This is a really, really hard game, and being one of the all-time greats takes ability, health, luck, and maybe a bit more luck. Predicting who will survive long enough, and perform well enough, to hit 700 home runs or get 3,500 hits or have a career OPS of 1000 is folly, because those feats defy prediction.

I have to say that writing this column has given me a greater appreciation for the feats of Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson, both of whom passed milestones earlier in April, and, in Henderson's case, will pass more significant ones this summer. Let's enjoy them, and their work, while we can.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. We'll have his email fixed soon.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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