|Welcome to Club 500|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
You're going to be hearing -- a lot -- about what seems to be a whole bunch of guys, maybe a bunch of undeserving guys, reaching the 500 Home Run Club, career, this season.
You're going to be hearing so much about it, you may begin to wonder if Club membership has become cheap, mundane.
Guess what. They ain't devalued. Not 500 of them.
You can trust a home run -- 500 of them, you can. The home run, along with the long touchdown play (and in football, they even call that play a "Home Run"), remains the American sporting accomplishment and expression, combining nearly everything we admire -- lightning-quick strike, power, and, above all, great spectacle, a sustained visual effect (it takes roughly 3.5 seconds for most HRs to go from launch off bat to landing in some bleacher rugby scrum) in one beautiful arc of life. It is, well, a Home Run.
It is what you want to hit every day of your life, no matter what work you do. It is what you hit when your spouse married you (even though he/she's been unhittable since).
You can't have it both ways. Recently USA Today ran a big series about the hardest thing to do in sports, resolving nothing, of course, but giving people something to debate other than whether Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, or whether a fugitive on a statutory rape beef like Roman Polanski should get the Oscar for best director. The hardest thing to do is not to hit a baseball, but to hit a major league-pitched baseball that wasn't a mistake for a home run. That's part of what a home run is. Unambiguous.
If merely hitting a pitched baseball is the hardest thing to do in sport (which it isn't) then it follows that hitting 500 HRs must be the greatest achievement in sport. The only comparable acts of skill I can think of right offhand to be even close to it, are to score 125 touchdowns in the NFL, or to win 10 major titles in golf, or to average 30 career for the NBA playoffs, or to kiss Halle Berry in front of her crazed hubby in front of all of Hollywood ... and to get away with it.
Hitting a single major league pitch safely isn't the hardest thing to do in sports; honestly, you can do that with your eyes closed, swinging as hard as you can, and just getting lucky (I know because I've done it, and off Vida Blue at that). What is definitely the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit big league pitching, hard, consistently and safely, at an average of .300, over a set number of at-bats, say 500 of them, with a big-league defense behind the pitcher to back him up. The best way around that defense is to go over it, make it moot.
Only 17 people have hit 500 of those, career, in the history of big league baseball. Now, you can't trust that Opening Day blowout win, or the effects of Ephedra, or Billy Beane calling you up and saying he really doesn't want anything, but you can trust 500 home runs.
There are great ballplayers who didn't hit 500 dongs, like Musial, or DiMaggio, or Clemente, but they are no guys at all who hit 500 dongs who were not great home run hitters. There's no way to fall into it, inherit it, p.r. your way into it. It is unsubjective. No French judge holds up a card with "500" on it while you glisten backstage with your coach.
Oh, there are gradations, to be sure, Ted Williams spent time in the Army, as did Mays, or they'd have more. The Hammer was just more consistent, had a homer-friendly park ... of course, Hammer also had hate mail and death and kidnapping threats. It all washes out. It is what it is. Stan Musial should get a pass with his 475 dongs, because of how many extra-base hits he got, true; but all the deserving ones, except Musial, are in the Club, and Musial should be. Somebody should've told him what the Club meant when he was 30, and he would be. On the other hand, Jose Canseco didn't make it. I wouldn't argue he should have. It is what it is.
It doesn't matter if one, some or all guys in the clubhouse or on the beats or in the TV stations like you every single day. You are a home run hitter. Period. End of Story. And you, the Home Run Hitter, sit at the head of the table of the American sporting pantheon. You are the Big Dog Eating.
There are 17 immortals in this hitter's Valhalla, the House of Chiefs, with names like Aaron, Ruth, Mays, McGwire, Bonds, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott ... there's not a clunker in the bunch. Check it out. Oh, there are some guys who didn't hit .300 all the time, or guys no better than Jose Canseco playing outfield defense, but they all were -- are -- Home Run Hitters. The next four entrants, Nos. 18, 19, 20 and 21, could all make the Club this year, which of course would be a record. I can't recall a season when as many as two made it to No. 500 in the same season, although it may have happened. Four in one season is unprecedented.
Sammy Sosa may have hit No. 500 by the time you read this, as he is at 499 at the time I am writing it. Ken Griffey Jr. makes it this year, easy. Fred McGriff may make it, barring injury. Sweet-swinging Rafael Palmiero, as well. Now each one of those, through no real fault of his own, is not seen or promoted as Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy Slugger.
All of them lug some serious joke material around -- as do we all, I guess.
Sosa may hit his 500th into the medical waste bin at Walgreens. Say "Rick Reilly," and Sammy will walk into a telephone pole.
Ken Griffey Jr. is a bad Hamlet with bad hammys and a twisted ego. The team broadcasters are more popular than he is. Salmonella is more popular than he is.
McGriff's been let go more times than a hot iron, and is a running joke for doing those awful testimonials for old Whatshisname's kid baseball training video, grinning that cheese-eating grin, in that absurd blue foam trucker's ball cap with mesh backing. No big leaguer, especially a 500 Clubber, should be seen in a cap like that. It should be a felony.
Speaking of wooden, Raffy promotes Viagra. So how much of a home run hitter can he really be?
Funny? Maybe. Unless you're facing one of them, deep in the count, with the game on the line. Until you're a fan of one of their teams, and need a game bad, a game against your sworn arch-enemies, be they Yanks, Dodgers, Giants or Braves, until you're counting off the batting order, to see how many safeties it will take to get one of them up again in the ninth, to give you a chance to jolt one and win this, if two of these jerks can get on between now and then ...
Yep. All-Mythic. Whether you can see it right now, or not.
In this column space, they will all get theirs, one way or another; we will get to each of the four newest members of the 500 Club, each at his own appointed time, and hour.
As it happens, I've had some dealings with all four, except the Samster. Sammy has hit more home runs in a four-year period than anybody ... and it still took him this long to get 500. No, it's nothing you can do in a year, or even 10. No big leaguer, not even Sammy, not even Bonds, not even Ruth, has hit 500 home runs in a 10-season period, and while I won't say no one ever will, it gives you an idea of the enormity and consistency needed for the project. And understand, pitchers are rarely complicit in this. Diluted or not, they have their heat, ungodly breaking s---, back-door sliders, beanballs, slobber, sandpaper and lots of other stuff.
When I think of Sammy Sosa, I think of him and my old boy Rick Reilly, holding urine sample cups down at the ... no, I mean, when I think of Sammy, I think of Ernie Banks.
Banks won two MVP awards; that tells us something about him, too, since he won them when Musial, Mays, Aaron, Clemente and Mathews were also in the National League.
People say nice stuff about Ernie until this day; that tells us something, too. Tells us he was a nice guy for the most part, but tells us nothing about his baseball ability. What tells us he was mythic, a Home Run Hitter, is his 512 HRs. Which brings us to Bad Guy Syndrome, which is getting to be right up there with Acid Reflux and Irritible Bowel Syndromes in sports, particularly in baseball.
Just because a ballplayer is or isn't "nice" to you on a given day, doesn't Gwynn you up, or Kirby you down, does or doesn't autograph a ball for your kid while in uniform, does or doesn't give a cheese-eating grin, or make special time for you, or make you feel expert, just because he doesn't patronize you for his own good, not yours, doesn't mean squadoodle. If he treats you like his long-lost best friend, because he knows who you are, and what you can do for him, and his image, that doesn't mean anything about his abilities as a player, or about his true nature as a person.
In fact, if he's too nice, too agreeable, that should make him all the more suspect. By now we ought to understand and get it that it ain't all that hard to fool us in that way.
Anybody who is in the long process of hitting 500 dongs for a career (or whatever the equivalent is in the other sports) is a little too preoccupied to be Mr. Personality to everyone every day. It is nice when anybody, including superstars, are kind and courteous; hell, it would be even nicer if they were to lend you (or preferably me) some money, but I can't bring myself to hold it against them if they don't. I learned to be this way, and the person who began my instruction was my own 500 Club guy ...
"Willie ... McCovey ..."
The P.A. announcer said his name and the echo was carried away, lost on the swirling wind on those sunny days at old Candlestick Park. Willie McCovey was in his final days as a big-league left-handed power hitter, after a 20-year career, and he was often in a ruminating mood about it. On good days, he was ruminating. On the bad ones, he went sour.
He seemed to be sour way more than half the time. Only now do I begin to understand why. It had nothing to do with me. I don't have to forgive him for anything, because he never hurt me. Just my feelings, and they turned out to be resilient, and had to be. Everybody who comes down the pike takes a whack at feelings. Gotta come better than that. Gotta get me out. Stretch helped me in that way, helped me to see what was important, let me know, as life and ball had let him know, that it was never, ever, going to be easy.
I was in my first days as a baseball writer and often in a giddy mood about it. Can you blame me? Go to a ball game and write about it and the people who played? What was there not to be giddy about? The years had stripped Stretch of what must have once been a similar enthusiasm. This did not make for good chemistry between us, the spavined old Slugger with the bad toupee and the kid writer on the beat with way too much hair and too many questions.
Once he hit one into the right field upper deck at Candlestick. Later, I asked if it was one of the longest balls he'd ever hit. He sighed at the profundity of my ignorance. "That doesn't come close to being one of the longest balls I ever hit."
He answered a few more questions and began to unravel the tape and bandages off his legs, bowed even more now by the weight of extra pounds around his middle and upper arms, by 20 years of mule-hauling in the Show. He couldn't get around on the fastball anymore ... that life was ending.
Then one day, as if it was all of a sudden, which it was to a rookie on the beat, it happened, at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium, on Friday June 30, 1978. That old ballpark was known as "The Launching Pad," and with good reason; three Braves players, Aaron, Darrell Evans (good hitter, no 500 HRs) and Dave Johnson (good hitter, no 500 HRs), had hit 40 home runs in a season together. Aaron had hit No. 715 there only four years before.
On this very day, Jack Clark (good hitter, no 500 HRs -- Jack, now a Dodger hitting coach, just got whacked by a car as he rode a motorcycle without a helmet down in Phoenix; he broke eight ribs and nearly died) hit three home runs during a doubleheader. A native Georgian named Mike Ivie (good hitter, nowhere near 500 HRs) hit a pinch-hit grand slam, his second of that year, tying a big-league record. The Braves, by hitting five home runs themselves, still somehow won both games, 10-9 and 10-5. In all, the place looked like a devalued set from "Apocalypse Now."
And yet, for all these fireworks, the one really, truly and royally memorable thing to happen that day was Willie McCovey hitting home run No. 500.
He couldn't get around on the fastball anymore. He was often a mean-spirited grump toward the rookie on the beat and many others. But this was also a man who'd given out such pleasure, who'd caused such joy, who'd hit majestic home runs off Gibson, Burdette, Spahn, Koufax (Koufax!), Fergie Jenkins, Drysdale, Osteen, Sutton, Bunning, Seaver -- he'd hit most of them before 1969, when baseball lowered the mound, because Gibby, Koufax, Drysdale and the rest threatened to make a mockery of most hitter's lives, unless you think a perfecto or 58 straight scoreless innings or a 1.12 ERA over a season didn't mock hitters' lives.
Not much they didn't. Ordinary hitters, they mocked.
Stretch McCovey had played and hit his home runs in that era, for the most part. He had batted behind and protected Willie Mays. The Giants had traded Orlando Cepeda, son of the great Bull, Perucho Cepeda, maybe the greatest first-baseman ever, just to play McCovey. McCovey had hit the bullet line drive right at Bobby Richardson that the second baseman caught, basically to keep it from killing him, as the last out of the 1962 World Series.
At first, Stretch was just another big'un, a shy country boy from Mobile who people took for dumb as a brick because he could barely speak, at least as those in Northern California spoke, and was ashamed of his own tongue, who did nothing by what he said to dispel some of the curiouser and darker racial notions of an Alvin Dark or even the more benign ones of a Bill Rigney, a couple of ex-Giants and managers. Baseball and home runs had for so long given him his simple Why? They had been his answer, his sense of worth, of value.
So he gave to baseball his skill and devotion. Now he and baseball shared this moment. It had nothing to do with us.
He gave up getting No. 500 at home; during the last home stand he had looked almost pathetic. He had six home runs on the year at the time. Six home runs by July. For Stretch? That meant he was almost through. He'd hit his first one on August 2, 1959, off of one Ron Kline, at old Seals Stadium in San Francisco. Now here he was, 19 years later ...
... Jamie Easterly grunted and fired gas away from Stretch. Stretch had cheated, started the bat early. If you want a visual, he looked like Eddie Murray just a couple of years before, getting the bat started early, muscles not firing as they once did, doing it now on guile. If Easterly had a slider or even a straight change and had thrown either, the old man would have looked foolish. He had already done that, swung and missed badly at a high fastball the pitch before, his batting helmet nearly hopping off the hairpiece he'd begun to wear. Nobody wants to get old. Nobody wants to change. Nobody wants to die. But 500 home runs live forever, heavenly so.
Stretch knew Easterly was going to throw him a heater. No reason not to. He couldn't catch up to it anymore. Unless he guessed location right and got the bat started early. So he guessed, and fired. Guessed right. It was a fastball low and away that he reached and golfed high. Got just enough of it. Young Willie McCovey would've laughed sheepishly as Mays piped in that he should be 'shamed to take that li'l old piss-ant home run, that wasn't nothing but a big league pop-up; Easterly threw like a girl. And you think a Bonds tests your patience. I hear Mays was the real piece of work. But Mays was gone by then, and Bonds was not there yet.
McCovey's hit flew high and settled beyond the left field fence, an opposite field rainbow. Somebody in the press box said, "There it is," and somebody else said, "Finally." Stretch watched it while scuttling his big frame on bad legs down the first base line. When it disappeared, he ducked his head for a moment, rounded first, then lifted his head up and held it proudly the rest of the way around the bags as the P.A. announcer said, "That's 500 for Willie McCovey." Later on, in a whisper-quiet clubhouse, between games of the double-dip, Stretch said of his 500th home run:
"I'll take all I can get."
That's partly why the 500 Home Run Club will always be epic, to me; and why 755 is the great number of baseball.
Quiet as it's kept, of course.
There's more to this story. But then there always is.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."