At some point before the end of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, Minnesota Twins designated hitter Jim Thome will almost certainly make baseball history. He currently sits at 596 career home runs, leaving him four short of a plateau that, at one time, was nearly as mythical as 3,000 hits or 300 victories as a pitcher. Quite frankly, it should be even more so.
With Yankees' shortstop Derek Jeter joining just before the All-Star break, the 3,000-hit club now has twenty-eight members. The 300-win club has twenty-four members, with the most recent person to break those ranks being Randy Johnson in 2009. The likelihood of many more pitchers joining the 300-win club in this day and age is remote, considering that Roy Halladay, age 34, currently has 180 career victories. But even now, both of those clubs have at least three times as many members as the exclusive company that Thome is about to join.
When Jim Thome hits home run number 600, whatever point of the season it might come at, he will become just the eighth man in the long and storied history of Major League Baseball to reach that figure. It is a club that does not include names such as Harmon Killebrew (573), Reggie Jackson (563), or Mike Schmidt (548). This should be a really, really big deal. Yet, as we get closer to that point, it doesn't really seem that anybody is treating it as such. . .and the reason for that has absolutely nothing to do with Jim Thome or anything he's done or hasn't done or anything like that.
When I was growing up. . .and, as a point of reference, I'm nearly 35 years old. . .the 600-home run club had three members, and any kid that had so much as a passing interest in baseball could tell you who they were. You had Hank Aaron at 755, Babe Ruth at 714, and Willie Mays at 660. That was it. . .those were the only three men in Major League Baseball history that had deposited at least 600 baseballs into the stands of ballparks from coast to coast and border to border.
To contrast, here is what the list looks like today.
1) Barry Bonds, 762
2) Hank Aaron, 755
3) Babe Ruth, 714
4) Willie Mays, 660
5) Ken Griffey, Jr., 630
6) Alex Rodriguez, 626 (and counting)
7) Sammy Sosa, 609
All you need to do in order to see why the luster is being taken off of Thome's pursuit of immortality are the two men that bookend this list, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. What does the mere mention of those two names bring to mind?
That's right. . .steroids. Performance-enhancing drugs. The cream, the clear, the needles, and everything along those lines. Of the four men that have joined the 600-home run club in the past few years, three of them are either strongly suspected of having abused performance enhancers (in the case of Bonds and Sosa) or have flat-out admitted to taking them (in the case of Alex Rodriguez). Only Ken Griffey, Jr., who is widely regarded as one of the few "clean" superstars of the "steroid era," has escaped such scrutiny. Throw in players like Mark McGwire, who came up just short of making this list with 583 homers, and Rafael Palmeiro with his 569 home runs, and we have become desensitized to things of this nature because of player injecting themselves with various substances.
And that's really a shame for Thome, who has never had the specter of steroids looming over his head. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Thome has never been connected to performance enhancers by anybody meaningful in any meaningful way. But because his contemporaries took the shortcuts that they felt they needed to give themselves a chance at being in the history books, it diminishes the feat that he's about to accomplish. . .not necessarily in the eyes of baseball fans, but in the eyes of more casual folks. There were a lot of people wrapped up in Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron, and it is possible that there were even more people wrapped up in the two-man show that McGwire and Sosa put on in 1998. Unfortunately, Jim Thome is receiving no such publicity and no such accolades.
Jim Thome has never been the flashiest player on the field. . .he's never finished higher than fourth in the voting for Most Valuable Player in either league, and he's only led the big leagues in home runs one time in his 20+ seasons of big league ball. But even at age 40, he is still a threat at the plate, and he still has the ability to change the entire complexion of a game with one swing of the bat. As a fan of the Minnesota Twins, I'm proud to have had the chance to watch him, as the kids at Twinkie Town say, "mash taters" for the team for the past two and a half seasons, and he has provided a lot of memorable moments to the fans of the Minnesota Twins during that time.
I just wish that Thome was getting the accolades that he so richly deserves for reaching the milestone that he is about to reach, and I'm disappointed that the reason that he isn't, and that he likely won't, is because of things that were totally out of his control.