Era dilutes power of 500 club

By John Romano
Updated: April 23, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG — As numbers go in baseball, it is hard to beat 500.

It is large, it is round and it is historic. For as long as there have been home runs and legends, 500 was the spot where the elite all gathered. It was the dividing line between the great and the merely good.

As numbers go in baseball, it is easy to ignore 493.

It is impressive but somehow feels incomplete. As if you got most of the way through a race, only to run out of gas on the final lap. There are no ovations, and no club for 493 members.

You may have heard Gary Sheffield hit his 500th home run the other day, becoming the 25th member of that exclusive clique. And you may know he passed Fred McGriff at 493 sometime last season, becoming the greatest home run hitter to ever come out of Tampa.

It is usually not wise to argue against facts, but occasionally numbers do deceive. And so, just as we discovered last year that sometimes 9 = 8, I believe, in this case, 493 is greater than 500.

It has to do with timing. It has to do with circumstances. And, yes, it has to do with steroids.

McGriff’s best home run seasons were from 1988-94, when the major-league leader in home runs averaged around 45 a season. Sheffield’s best home run seasons were from 1999-2005, when the home run champ averaged nearly 56. In other words, Sheffield benefitted from playing in an era when home runs were far more prevalent.

You could blame smaller ballparks for some of the discrepancy. You might make an argument for changes in equipment. But it would be naive to assume performance-enhancing drugs were not a major factor as well.

20 years ago, it would have been a historic moment when Sheffield cleared the wall for home run No. 500. Ten years ago, it would have been cause for a much grander celebration. Today? It is merely a number. And not even a very special one.

This is not a moral judgment against steroids. It is not an indictment of the players involved. It is simply an acknowledgement of the changing perspective. Other scandals have come and gone, but only steroids has created a lasting impact on baseball’s record books.

To witness a 500th home run used to be a feat as rare as a perfect game. Today, it is almost an annual occurrence. For 99 years, baseball added just 15 players to the 500 club. Now, in less than 11 years, the club has swelled by 10 more.

Coincidence or not — and I think not — a good number of the most recent members have been implicated in steroid cases. Barry Bonds? Yup. Mark McGwire? Yup. Sammy Sosa? Alex Rodriguez? Rafael Palmeiro? Yup, yup, yup.

And now comes Sheffield.

He has denied ever knowingly using steroids but has acknowledged receiving supplements from BALCO and working with Bonds’ personal trainer, Greg Anderson. He told a grand jury he used cream from BALCO but was not aware it was a steroid.

None of which means Sheffield is a product of performance-enhancing drugs. He was one of the game’s most feared hitters long before his name was ever linked to Bonds or BALCO. And, truth be told, he was a better overall hitter in his prime than McGriff.

Still, there is a great temptation to lump Sheffield in with others of his era. And, when it comes to home runs, I have little doubt that Sheffield enjoyed benefits that McGriff never had.

It is, in a way, the saddest impact of recent seasons. That a century’s worth of baseball numbers could be skewed because drugs changed the playing field so completely beginning in the late 1990s.

Once, like a schoolboy reciting a poem, I could name every member of the 500 home run club and the exact numbers etched beside their names. I knew Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews barely made it, and I knew Stan Musial and Lou Gehrig narrowly missed.

Today, the list grows and the prestige dwindles. It was Manny Ramirez last season, it was Sheffield this season and it could be Carlos Delgado next season. It still means something to hit 500 home runs, I’m just not sure what.

For now, I’ll take the old guys.

For now, I’ll take 493.