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.
- 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
- 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
I have to say that writing this column has given me a greater appreciation
for the feats of
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
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. We’ll have his email fixed