The Washington Times - November 6, 2009, 10:10AM

It’s still a very short list, the group of players who’ve gotten 3,000 major league hits. And who isn’t in the club – Rogers Hornsby, Al Simmons and Babe Ruth, to name three – is every bit as interesting as the 27 who are.

So what happens when Johnny Damon gets there – as I’m convinced he will, say, four years from now, when he’s 39? (He’s 575 hits shy – and still spry enough to swipe two bases at a time.) We’re talking, after all, about one of the Magic Numbers as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned. The only Mr. 3,000 who isn’t in Cooperstown – and doesn’t figure to be – is Rafael Palmiero, who disqualified himself, in the eyes of many, when he tested positive for steroids.

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It was hard not to think of such things while watching Damon lash hits for the Yankees during the postseason. You have to admit, he’s been a good-to-very good player for a long time. He also earned a certain immortality in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS when he cracked a grand slam and a two-run job to help the Red Sox cap the greatest comeback in baseball history – and banish the Curse of the Bambino to boot.

What tends to be forgotten, though, is that, going into the game, Damon had done virtually nothing in the series. He was 3-for-29 when he led off that night against New York’s Kevin Brown. Nine innings later, he never had to buy a drink in Boston again.

So far, baseball has been spared these touchy situations. Harold Baines (2,866), try as he might, never quite reached 3,000 hits, and Fred McGriff (493), Jose Canseco (462) and Dave Kingman (442) fell conveniently short of 500 homers, another passkey to the Hall. Damon, still playing at a high level, could well be the first to force the issue, the issue being: What, I got 3,000 hits and you’re not gonna let me in?

Unfortunately for Johnny, the Damon oeuvre doesn’t overwhelm. He’s been picked for just two All-Star games, has never finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting and has no Gold Gloves adorning his mantle. In fact, only three times has he led the league in any statistical category – runs (136) and stolen bases (46) in 2000 with the Royals and triples (11) in ’02 with the Sox. None of his core numbers (.288 average, .355 on base, .439 slugging, 105 OPS+) knock you over, either.

Which makes him, what, the Vada Pinson of his generation? Maybe. You line up Pinson’s stats next to Damon’s and they’re remarkably similar. (Vada was better early in his career, Johnny has been better late.)

Still, 3,000 is an awful lot of hits. And what if Damon’s performance – relative to his contemporaries – seems diminished because he didn’t cheat, didn’t juice? That’s a can of worms nobody wants to open.