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Yesterday, Rafael
Palmeiro
became the 19th player in major-league history to hit 500
home runs, joining the club with a three-run blast to right field in the
seventh inning off the Indians’ David
Elder
. His achievement has been met with lukewarm response, unusual
for someone reaching such an important milestone. Not only has no eligible
500-home run hitter ever been left out of the Hall of Fame, none have ever
sparked serious debate over their candidacy.

Palmeiro’s accomplishment, though, is being hailed not as the signature feat
of a great player, but as an example of just how “cheap” home runs
have become in the early 21st century. Palmeiro’s qualifications for the Hall
are being questioned, and he’s being lumped in not with Reggie
and Eddie
and Michael
Jack
, but with modern DHs like Harold
Baines
and Jose
Canseco
.

Which is, to be unnecessarily blunt, BS.

Rafael Palmeiro has been a durable, productive hitter for 15 years. Unlike the
players with whom he’s being classified, Palmeiro has done a lot more than
merely hit home runs. He’s hit for average, drawn walks, played defense and
stayed in the lineup. He doesn’t merely meet the established standards for the
Hall of Fame; he exceeds them by so much that this entire debate borders on
the insane.

Palmeiro is 19th all time in home runs. He’s 24th all time in total bases,
25th in doubles, 24th in RBI, 50th in walks, 59th in runs scored. His career
line of .292/.374/.523 is comparable to Willie
McCovey
‘s .270/.374/.515 or Willie
Stargell
‘s .282/.360/.529. His comps aren’t the Hall of Fame’s
mistakes; they’re the guys just outside the inner circle who were great
sluggers for a very long time.

Somehow, this player who has played in 97.6% of his team’s games since
becoming a regular in 1988, who was considered one of the best defensive first
basemen of his era, and who did so much more at the plate than yank homers, is
being characterized as a guy who just happened to play in a hitters’ era, a Ken
Williams
for Generation Y, and as little more than a DH.

Part of the perception problem stems from the fact that four players have
joined the 500 Club since 1999, so there’s a notion going around that the feat
is becoming commonplace. Of course, you might have said the same in 1971. With
Harmon
Killebrew
and Frank
Robinson
joining that year, the 500 Club had gone from four members to
11 in just seven seasons:

1965: Willie
Mays

1967: Mickey
Mantle
, Eddie Mathews
1968: Hank
Aaron

1970: Ernie
Banks

1971: Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew

After that, just four players popped #500 over the next quarter-century
(McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Eddie
Murray
), as any number of players you might have called contenders in
1971–Stargell, Carl
Yastrzemski
, Billy
Williams
–fell short.

It’s important to remember that last point. Right now, people are pointing to
the many players in the 300-480 home-run range and extrapolating from that a
list of oh-so-many players who will reach 500, and thereby continue to dilute
the pool. The fact is, many of the players who get projected forward into the
500 Club have as much chance of getting there as I do.

Here’s the active HR leaders list, starting with Fred
McGriff
at 483:


Player               HR    Age

Fred McGriff        483     39
Ken Griffey Jr.     469     33
Juan Gonzalez       416     33
Andres Galarraga    389     42
Jeff Bagwell        391     35
Frank Thomas        383     35
Matt Williams       377     37
Greg Vaughn         352     37
Mike Piazza         351     34

Of these guys, only Ken Griffey
Jr.
is better than even money to get to 500. McGriff will probably get
there, if only because he’s so close and can likely find work as a part-time
player for a few years even if he doesn’t hit #500 in 2003. Juan
Gonzalez
‘s hot start this year makes him a candidate again, although
he’s been so erratic and fragile of late that it’s hard to know what to
expect. Jeff
Bagwell
and Frank
Thomas
and Mike
Piazza
are excellent hitters, but they all have to sustain
productivity for at least another four seasons, and baseball’s history is
chock-full of great sluggers who couldn’t get the bat around at 36, much less
38.

As for the many great players who haven’t even hit 350 home runs yet, I think
it’s reasonable to say that projecting anyone to have six or seven years of
production left in them is a bit optimistic. Alex
Rodriguez
, with 309 home runs at age 27, could rewrite the record book,
and Manny
Ramirez
is a fair bet with 314 at age 31, but beyond that, we’re deep
into the realm of wishcasting. Vladimir
Guerrero
doesn’t have 250 home runs yet.

Rafael Palmeiro has done something rare and great. Knocking that
accomplishment because some guys did it just before he did, or because more
guys might do it in the coming years, makes little sense. In seven years, when
he comes up for the Hall of Fame, he could very well be part of a club with just two
more members than it has today.

Finally, Palmeiro is still playing and playing well. He has his 500 knocks and
there’s a good chance he’ll hit another 50, maybe even make a run at 600. He
was the one of the top 10 hitters in the AL last year, and with a .315 EqA is
just outside the top 20 so far this year. If anything, he’s part of an even
more elite group within the 500 Club: players who reached the mark while still
among the best at their craft.

Rafael Palmeiro is a Hall of Famer. If he’s not, just close the doors and use
the building for storage space.

Jeff Torborg Fired

On a less pleasant note, Jeff Torborg was fired Saturday, ending his latest
managerial tenure with a record of 95-105 in just over a season with the
Florida Marlins. That brings Torborg’s career managerial record to 634-718,
with exactly two seasons over .500.

The question with Torborg is not whether he should have been fired. The
question is whether he should have been hired. The fact is, other than two
years in Chicago when he stumbled into the White Sox run of tremendous talent
(Robin
Ventura
, Frank
Thomas
, Jack
McDowell
, Alex
Fernandez
) generated by Larry Himes, Torborg has never had success as
a major-league manager. He got this job not because of his curriculum vitae,
but because he was Jeffrey Loria’s friend dating to their days in Oklahoma
City.

If it actually was the injury to A.J.
Burnett
that got Torborg fired, then Loria has no one to blame but
himself, because Torborg’s record in that regard was pretty evident. Even if
Loria didn’t know about Torborg’s
previous work
, he got to watch with his own eyes as his manager rode Javier
Vazquez
into the ground in the second half of 2001.

At Saturday’s Pizza Feed, I talked about how baseball’s hiring practices are
one of the critical flaws in the game, and how management roles, from GM on
down, are filled not with the best available men for the job, but with
drinking buddies and old teammates and baseball lifers who have never had
their qualifications examined.

Jeff Torborg got hired that way, and I’d like to think that the experience
will be one more small step in the game’s evolution toward running itself
like a real business, and hiring people who bring more to the table than a
head full of received wisdom and the ability to ignore evidence that
contradicts it.