- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

The ho-hum aspect of Jim Thome’s 500th home run is yet another example of the damage the steroids scandal has done to baseball. You did hear about it, didn’t you? The feat kind of got lost Sunday between Tiger Woods’ clinching of the FedEx Cup and the Patriots’ clobbering of the Chargers in their first post-Spygate game.

Indeed, there wasn’t much buildup to it at all — which says something, too, about the state of sports coverage in this country. Michael Vick plea hearings and O.J. Simpson perp walks are deemed much more newsworthy these days than a man hitting 500 balls over major league fences.

Not so long ago, such an accomplishment was accorded much attention and respect. Of course, in the mid-‘90s, there were only 15 names on the 500 Homer List, legendary names like Ruth, Williams, Aaron, Mays and Jackson. Since 1999, though, when Mark “I’m Not Here To Talk About The Past” McGwire belted No. 500, seven more members have joined the club — and two others, Manny Ramirez (490) and Gary Sheffield (480) are pacing in the lobby.

Thanks to the mad scientists at BALCO and other clandestine retreats, 500 isn’t that special a number anymore. Heck, Thome’s 500th dinger came only 43 days after Alex Rodriguez’s 500th — which came only 37 days after Frank Thomas’ 500th. Who can keep track of ‘em all?

‘Tis a pity, especially because, by all accounts, Thome came about his 500 homers honestly (as did A-Rod and the Big Hurt). Unlike McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Sheffield, he has never been linked to performance enhancers, never had his feet suddenly grow 2½ sizes. Granted, you can’t be 100 percent sure in these artificial times, but Thome has always been as broad-shouldered as a blacksmith. He didn’t go through a String Bean Phase like Barry and others did.

Here’s how devalued the achievement has become: The fan who wound up with Thome’s historic home run ball, one Will Stewart of Austin, Texas, promptly handed it over to him. That’s right, he didn’t call Sotheby’s auction house on his cell phone, didn’t put the ball up for bids on eBay, didn’t try to convert it to an IRA, he simply returned it to its rightful owner. You would have thought it was a foul ball in a Little League game.

According to reports, Stewart had no idea Thome was closing in on 500 when he bought his bleacher seat online. He just wanted to see a game at U.S. Cellular Field while in Chicago for an accounting conference. Then the White Sox slugger came up in the ninth against Angels reliever Dustin Moseley and hoisted a two-run walk-off homer to left-center field, not far from where Stewart was sitting.

An un-mad scramble followed — it was, after all, just another 500th homer ball — and Stewart emerged with the souvenir … and all his clothes. When was the last time that happened? When was the last time somebody caught a 500th home run ball without losing at least a few buttons on his shirt — 1929, maybe?

That was the year Babe Ruth swatted No. 500. Now there was a momentous occasion. In ‘29, you see, nobody else had even half as many homers. (The next highest total was Cy Williams’ 249.)

The Bambino’s clout cleared the right-field wall at Cleveland’s Dunn Park and bounced in the direction of Jake Geiser, a 48-year-old passerby from New Philadelphia, Ohio. Geiser had been visiting family near the ballpark and was heading down Lexington Avenue to catch a bus home.

Soon enough, he was being ushered into the Yankees dugout and introduced to the Babe himself. A quick transaction ensued. As the New York Times put it, “The Emperor of Swat … traded him a pair of autographed baseballs in exchange for the historic sphere he fielded off [a] doorstep, then presented him with a $20 bill, unautographed.

“Mr. Geiser decided to miss the New Philadelphia bus, but after watching Ruth miss the fence in three subsequent efforts, and ascertaining that Ruth’s 600th homer is not likely to happen here this week, he left for home tonight.”

(The poor guy. Had he known the stock market was going to crash in October, he could have held out for a little more.)

Now that baseball is testing for drugs, the 500 home run mark probably won’t be reached as often. So perhaps the achievement can regain some of its specialness, some of its exclusivity. It would be nice if, the next time somebody did it — Carlos Delgado (429 and counting)? Andruw Jones (367)? Vlady Guerrero (363)? — the fan who caught the ball wasn’t quite so willing to part with it.

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