- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

For a sport that treasures its records, even to the point of deifying its greatest accomplishments, it’s a strange time to make sense of what baseball’s numbers mean anymore.

There are still some numbers that need no explanation — 56, .406, 4,256 — but as timeless as those records are, baseball always has held the home run in special regard. And the two players currently climbing up the game’s all-time homer list are doing so without the fanfare that used to accompany such feats.

Ken Griffey Jr. is four homers away from 600, while Alex Rodriguez is passing legends on the home run list at a rate not seen since, well, Barry Bonds.

And that’s the problem right there. Baseball has reached a crossroads where the marks of Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire are tacitly discredited because of their connections with steroids. But those numbers still stand, diluting the game’s most hallowed record and making it so the likes of Griffey and Rodriguez ascend without the sense of history given to the players that came before them.

That might have something to do with the former teammates’ foibles. Repeated injuries have kept Griffey from playing more than 150 games in every season since 1999, while Rodriguez has been tagged for his failures in the playoffs, his off-and-on spats with Derek Jeter and whatever else the New York media sees fit to print.

(The specter of steroids has now reached Rodriguez’s door after Jose Canseco’s latest round of name-dropping, but more substantive evidence of Rodriguez using performance-enhancing drugs is needed before going into what it means for his career.)

But steroids, one way or another, are still the issue here. Even though most don’t believe Bonds, Sosa and McGwire got big and strong by eating their vegetables anymore, the memories they provided are still fresh, and all of it gives a been-there, done-that feel to the runs by Griffey and Rodriguez.

When Griffey reaches 600, he will be the third player in the last 10 years to do it. And at 522 homers, Rodriguez is still 48 from cracking the all-time top-10 list — which counts four suspected steroid users among its members.

Further down the list, the effect is even more noticeable. Five hundred homers used to warrant automatic mention among the game’s all-time greats. Now, it barely cracks the top 25 on the all-time list.

If his ugly release from the Blue Jays yesterday ends his career, will Frank Thomas go down as one of the greatest hitters of his generation? Take out Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, and Thomas ranks only behind Griffey and Rodriguez among his contemporaries. But his 516 homers don’t look as impressive with those players on the list.

Jim Thome has 512 homers, but he’s only 21st all-time. When Manny Ramirez hits four more homers and joins the 500 club, he’ll be the ninth player to do it in the last 10 years. Gary Sheffield is only 19 away. Counting Thomas, Thome and Ramirez, he’s the only one of the four with any steroid links. But an entire generation of players are passing through hallowed ground like it’s a rest stop on the freeway.

So enjoy Griffey’s 600th, Rodriguez’s pursuit of Bonds, Manny’s 500th. Just don’t be surprised if it all feels a little familiar.

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