Six hundred homers? It was once sacred ground in baseball, a place reserved for Aaron, Ruth and Mays. Then came the steroid era. Baseball owners and players took the most awe-inspiring sanctuary in sports and built condos on it, all with the idea of restoring value in the cold, hard American dollar. That is when baseball officially became a business more than our national pastime. Gordon Gekko became commissioner.So now A-Rod is on the cusp of 600, an event that should be cause for national celebration. Well whoop-de-do. For those keeping score at home, Rodriguez has hit all 599 of his career home runs after the 1994-95 work stoppage, the official starting line of chemical breeding in baseball. A-Rod might as well be Dolly, the genetically engineered sheep. If he breaks down anytime before eclipsing the equally mutated Barry Bonds, fear not. We can always make another one.
Wisecracking aside, we crunched some numbers here. From 1920 to 1994, throughout the major leagues, home runs were hit at an average pace of one for roughly 48.5 at-bats. From 1970 to 1994, the number was roughly one homer for every 43 at-bats. Since the start of the 1995 campaign, homers have come at the stratospheric rate of one for every 32 at-bats, a preposterous increase that has made a mockery of the record book. Men like Aaron, Ruth and Mays worked far, far harder for their accomplishments than men like Rodriguez and Bonds did for theirs, a fact that requires some obvious adjustment. A home run now does not equal a home run then. Think of it as comparing the yen to the dollar.
So, using our currency converter to compare Rodriguez's numbers to those who came before him, here’s what we came up with: Depending on which standard you elect to use – the 1920-94 average or the one from 1970-94 – Rodriguez actually has somewhere between 389 and 446 home runs. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and call it 446. That leaves him more than 300 homers short of Aaron on the morning after his 35th birthday, all in the wake of hip surgery and coming at a time when Rodriguez seems to be deteriorating at a rapid pace.
Don’t misunderstand. Rodriguez was and forever will be one of the game’s greatest players. This has nothing to do with him personally. (Using the same formula, Bonds would have had somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 home runs.) Rather, it has to do with the complete lack of respect owners and players simultaneously had for a game that, as James Earl Jones told us as Terrence Mann in "Field of Dreams," has marked the time. Baseball was a relatively rare constant in our history, at least until the historic work stoppage of 1994-95. Owners and players both understood the damage that resulted from that debacle, so they both looked the other way when Dr. Feelgood walked into the room and stuck a needle into the game’s behind.
Voila. Just like that, Ivan Drago was hitting cleanup for just about every team in the major leagues and the game was back, feeling better than ever. Attendance went up and the game hasn’t had a labor issue since.
The damage, in retrospect, was considerable. Can we honestly look at anyone in baseball the same way now? Can we really mention A-Rod in the same breath as Aaron, Ruth and Mays? Can we truly regard David Ortiz’ club record of 54 home runs in the same way we looked at, say, Jim Rice’s 46 (in 1978) during a week that marks the one-year anniversary of the news that Ortiz's name was on the famed 2003 steroids list? The answers are obvious. No way, no chance, not ever. More than anything else, baseball wanted to restore its business in the wake of the strike. In the short term, the game got it. In the long term, the game sold its credibility, or at least a good percentage of it, which is why A-Rod homer total needs to now suffer a hefty tax.
Rodriguez, in particular, quite literally sold his soul. As part of Rodriguez’ epic, $275 million deal with the Yankees, the player has $6 million bonuses when he hits career home run Nos. 660 (Mays), 714 (Ruth) and 755 (Aaron). He will earn an additional $6 million each for both tying and passing Bonds (762), meaning he could earn an additional $30 million that would bring the total value of the contract to in excess of $305 million.
For Rodriguez, that is the potential reward for being baseball’s home run king.
If only in title.
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