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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.

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