The 600 Club Waits For A-Rod

published July 29, 2010

The stat watch continues, as Alex Rodriguez awaits the pitch he’ll pound over the fence for his 600th home run.

The milestone dinger will be greeted with some cheers, much apathy, and an overwhelming level of cynicism.

That’s pretty much how it goes with A-Rod.  He blew the chance to reach 600 at home, going homerless in three games against Kansas City over the weekend, even when given the opportunity to face the man who gave up his 500th, Kyle Davies.  Then it was on to Cleveland, where he’s gone 2-for-13 in the last three games.

He’ll get one more crack at the milestone in Cleveland tonight, his seventh game since reaching 599.  If he fails there, he’ll move on to Tampa Bay, having equaled Ken Griffey Jr. for the longest wait before a 600th home run.

In the first hundred years of professional baseball in America, only one man – Babe Ruth – topped 600 career home runs.  In 1969 and 1971, a pair of players joined him: Willie Mays and Henry Aaron.

Rodriguez will be the fourth man to reach the mark in the last ten years.  There are few stats more indicative of the changes in baseball in the last twenty years than that.  Careers are longer, parks are smaller, players are bigger, older players are in better shape than ever (whether through effort alone or chemical augmentation).  If Jim Thome (576) and Manny Ramirez (554) can somehow get past the line by the middle of the 2012 season, that will make six players in ten years, since Barry Bonds’s 600th in August 2002.

The Babe hit his 600th on August 21, 1931, in the third inning of a game against the Browns in St. Louis.  He’d hit number 599 the day before.  Ruth homered in the third inning off George Blaeholder, sending the crowd into a celebratory frenzy.  Or maybe not: According to The New York Times, attendance at the game was 7,500, “of which approximately 6,000 were ladies’ day guests.”

Lou Gehrig was the next hitter, and showing his usual flair for the spotlight, he homered too, a fact all but ignored by the day’s scribes.  Ruth finished his afternoon early, getting thrown out of the game in the seventh inning for running in from the outfield to argue that a home run by Red Kress should have been a ground-rule double.  He’s the only player to be ejected from a game in which he hit his 600th home run.  So far.

Thirty-eight years later, Willie Mays joined Ruth with his last home run of the 1969 season.  It was his thirteenth of the season, his lowest total to date in an injury-plagued year.  He was pinch-hitting for 20-year-old George Foster, a future 50-home run hitter being replaced by a two-time 50-homer man.

Aaron followed little more than a season later, with his typical efficiency.  Number 600 came on April 27, 1971, off Giants starter Gaylord Perry, making Aaron the only member of the club to hit his 600th off a future Hall of Famer.  He wasted little time, hitting the landmark in his second game after reaching the threshold.

Barry Bonds (August 9, 2002) and Sammy Sosa (June 20, 2007) each hit theirs against a former team: Bonds off of Pittsburgh’s Kip Wells, and Sosa while playing for Texas against Jason Marquis of the Cubs.  Sosa’s 600th homer was followed immediately by a blast from Frank Catalanotto, which brought back memories of Ruth and Gehrig to exactly no one.

Ken Griffey Jr. was the most recent to join the club – still exclusive, if no longer quite so private — on June 9, 2008, with a first-inning shot off Florida’s Mark Hendrickson.  Griffey was the second-oldest player to reach the milestone, just twenty days younger than Sammy Sosa at the time of his 600th home run.

The youngest to reach 600?  Babe Ruth, 36 years, six months, sixteen days.  A-Rod will be the youngest as long as he hits one more by the end of the 2011 season.  He no longer seems a lock to pass Bonds, however, as the aches and pains intensify through the course of his thirties.  The calendar is the one opponent who never hangs a breaking ball.

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