500 Home Run Club ain't what it used to be

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There is no doubt Gary Sheffield deserves congratulations for slugging his 500th career home run in the Mets’ 5-4 win over the Brewers on Friday night at brand new Citi Field. Sheffield’s name surfaced in the Mitchell Report and he reportedly admitted to the BALCO grand jury that he used what he thought were undetectable steroids, but even if you’re providing yourself with an unfair chemical advantage, it is still a remarkable accomplishment to hit a ball thrown at a high rate of speed by a big league pitcher over a fence 300-plus feet away on 500 separate occasions. That said, Sheffield’s milestone blast served to further water down the membership of what was once baseball’s most elite group.

Orioles great Eddie Murray smacked his 500th career home run at Camden Yards on Sept. 6, 1996, to become the 15th player in history to reach that milestone. At the time, only four players - Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt - had earned membership in the 500 Home Run Club in the previous 25 years. There weren’t and still aren’t any questions about the legitimacy of Murray’s accomplishment, and it was a joyous occasion not just for Orioles fans, but for baseball fans in general. But in the 12-plus years since, 10 more players have joined the once-exclusive club, and more than half of them are known or suspected users of performance-enhancing drugs.

There is no solid evidence of performance-enhancing drug use by Mark McGwire, who hit career homer No. 500 on Aug. 5, 1999, and finished his career with 583 longballs, but even if you don’t believe former teammate Jose Canseco’s claims about Big Mac in his book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big,” McGwire’s infamous “I’m not here to talk about the past,” defense before the 2005 congressional hearing on steroids spoke volumes about his past as far as most baseball fans are concerned. The public hadn’t really smelled the coffee regarding performance-enhancing drug use at the time of McGwire’s 500th, but in retrospect, it began a new, tainted era for the 500 Home Run Club.

Eventual Home Run King Barry Bonds was next up, slugging No. 500 of his controversial career on April 17, 2001. San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams provided what many consider to be irrefutable evidence that the Giants superstar used many different performance-enhancing drugs, beginning in 1999, in their 2006 book “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports.” As a result, many argue that Hank Aaron is still the true Home Run King despite the fact that he hit seven fewer home runs (755) than Bonds (762).

Next came Sammy Sosa, who hit No. 500 on April 4, 2003, and currently ranks sixth on the all-time home run list with 609. Many people assume that Slammin’ Sammy used performance-enhancing drugs because of his gaudy, McGwire-like numbers and his cartoonishly muscular build, but it has never been proven. And while McGwire essentially pleaded the fifth at the infamous congressional hearing, Sosa - well, his lawyers, anyway - at least went as far as to say that he had never used “illegal performance-enhancing drugs” or “injected [himself] or had anyone inject [him] with anything” or “broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic.” Still, the cloud of suspicion looms.

Rafael Palmeiro, who went deep for the 500th time on May 11, 2003, famously wagged a finger at the congressional panel investigating steroid use in baseball and declared in no uncertain terms that he had never used them. Well-received at the time, that gesture backfired big-time on Aug. 1, 2005, when Major League Baseball suspended Palmeiro for 10 days for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro sometimes stuffed cotton in his ears to drown out the booing after returing from suspension, and has rarely been heard from since after finishing out that season.

Ken Griffey Jr. was widely considered the best player in baseball in the early to mid-90s, but was overshadowed by guys like McGwire and Sosa later in the decade as injuries began to take their toll. Junior persevered, however, and slugged No. 500 on June 20, 2004. Griffey smacked his 600th home run a few days shy of four years later, on June 11, 2008, and is now back with his original team, the Mariners, and looking to add to his career total of 613. Griffey has never been accused of - or even suspected of - using performance-enhancing drugs, and will go down as the greatest slugger of his era in many people’s minds as a result.

Next came Frank Thomas, who became the first of three players top the 500-home run mark in 2007 by going deep on June 28. Thomas, like Griffey, flew under the radar late in his career as other sluggers stole the headlines but has avoided the performance-enhancing drug stigma and will be looked upon favorably by history as a result. Alex Rodriguez became with youngest member of the 500 Home Run Club about five weeks later on Aug. 5, but has since admitted to performance-enhancing drug use while playing for the Rangers from 2001 to 2003. The third player to join the club that year, Jim Thome - who hit No. 500 in dramatic, walk-off fashion on Sept. 16 - has never been linked to performance-enhancing drug use and may go down as the most underrated slugger of his era.

Before Sheffield’s milestone homer, the last player to join the 500 Home Run Club was Manny Ramirez, who did so on May 31, 2008, while still playing for the Red Sox. Ramirez had never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs until recently, when Canseco claimed that his name appeared on the infamous “List of 103” players who tested positive along with Rodriguez during Major League Baseball’s survey testing of 2004. Many disregard Canseco’s claim, but he’s been right about the performance-enhancing drug use of many players in the past and only time will tell if he is right about Ramirez.

To recap, of the 10 players who have topped the 500-home run mark since Murray, one (Palmeiro) has tested positive for steroids and another (Rodriguez) has admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Two others, Bonds and Sheffield, will forever be linked to the BALCO scandal. Most baseball fans believe McGwire was a steroid user, questions will probably always swirl around Sosa’s accomplishments and Canseco’s recent allegation - though not widely accepted as truth, and quite possibly just a desperate attempt for publicity - casts Ramirez in a new light. Only Griffey, Thomas and Thome remain as players whose accomplishments have not been called into question. As the title of this post suggests, the 500 Home Run Club just isn’t what it used to be.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

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Jay LeBlanc

Jay LeBlanc

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