|Chasing the sweet tune of 500|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
What is it about home runs?
It's the sharp crack, the height and the distance.
It's the adrenaline rush of instant scoring in a game otherwise measured out in drops, bits and scratches.
But most of all, it's the miraculous routine physics of the thing. It's the way a 90-odd-mile-an-hour ball, screaming in on a mean line, gets turned right around, gets batted and bounced back some 400-plus feet, on a line just as screaming and mean as the one it came in on.
It's a perfectly executed revolution; that's what it is -- an absolute, end-of-the-debate overthrow of something that once looked to be unstoppably headed the other way.
When we get to our feet, when we thrill -- all slack-jawed and breathless -- to a homer in flight and to the man who hit it, this is what stirs and stays with us.
Since the beginning of recorded baseball time, only 17 sultans have swatted 500 dingers or more. Just 17.
This year, if things break right, we're gonna see four new players reach the mark.
Sammy Sosa needs just one more. Raffy Palmeiro's within striking distance at 490. The Crime Dog has a good shot of getting the 22 he needs (not as good as he had in Wrigley, but still …), and if Junior Griffey's spring is any indication, he's looking like he might pull off a comeback with the requisite 32-blast vengeance.
Even in the era of jacked-up offense and Hanz-and-Franz frames, 500 is a big number. It sounds big; the long "i" peels like a bell. It looks big; there's a certain perfect monumental roundness to it.
It's rare and long in the coming. It resonates, carries with it the echoes of history and the shine of greatness.
By season's end, if everything falls into place, 500 will unite these players. They'll be the four who went for five in '03, and they'll be stamped, made, hailed into baseball's ruling class as a class.
But for each of them, and through each of them, the big number will look a little different.
The Rangers gave up on him. The White Sox traded him cross-town to the Cubs, and if you'd told fans of either team then, or fans anywhere around the league, that he was headed for the 500-homer plateau, they wouldn't have laughed at you; they'd have asked you who he was, or what you were on, or both.
Now, after five years of obscene power, and much-improved patience at the plate (his walk and on-base numbers are way up since '98), he's not just a lock for 5; he could be headed (at 34 years old) for 600 and maybe beyond.
His 500 is a flurry, a house of fire, it's a train riiiiiiiide, 16 coaches long. It's the picture of a transformation, a full-scale, don't-look-back renaissance.
And it feels, even now, when we know how good he is, like a lark, like an upset, like one of those late-summer romances the baseball gods are suckers for (only this one keeps going and going, and you wonder if you're dreaming, or if he's dreaming, or if maybe the game ain't nothing but a dream anyway).
His 500 is a whipsaw pop to Waveland. It's a hop, skip and a jump down the line to first. It's chest thumps and kisses and sprints to the outfield. It's explosive.
Ken Griffey Jr.
But they feel so different right now.
Only three years back, 500 for the Kid felt like an afterthought. He was on the All-Century team. He was coming off five consecutive 40-plus homer seasons.
He had been the youngest ever to hit 350, 400 and 450, and the only truly relevant Griffey number then was 755.
Now, after a couple of down years with injuries, no one's talking about Hank, and ain't many folks talking about the Kid, either.
His 500 is no sure thing (at least this year). And, weird as it seems, given where he once was, and what we once imagined or wanted him to be, it could play like a bit of a letdown when it comes.
But that's the cynical read. Screw the cynical read.
It says here, if he can pull it off, his 500 might be a renewal, a rebirth.
It could be a reminder of what a remarkable career he's had (under absurd expectations and big, bad, monster pressure, thank you very much), and a sign that he's not done by a long ways.
Yeah, 500 -- that might just be the value of a sweet, long swing coming through without thinking, a return to reckless, ruthless form.
And we're talking back-in-the-day 30s -- 30s that were hard to come by, 30s that led the league (in '89 and '92).
There were peaks -- a crazy hot streak right after he was traded to the Braves in '93 -- and a valley -- a paltry 19 for the Rays in '98 -- but mostly there was Fred, standing in, just about every day, taking his chop-down-finish-high-and-with-style swings, and jacking 30, or damn near, for 17 years now.
You probably haven't been thinking about him. He was in Toronto -- off your radar. He was in San Diego -- way, way off your radar. He was in Atlanta, and you kind of noticed him then, but that was a pitcher's team first, last and always, and so it was easy to lose track of what he was doing. Then he was in Tampa -- do they even have radar in Tampa? Then Chicago, and now L.A., but you figured he must be old and worn out by now. You didn't figure he'd still be doing it, still be suiting up and going deep, like clockwork.
Fred's 500 will sneak up on you, maybe. It's a quiet 5, just bat cracks and quick-skitting liners that bolt over the right-field fence.
But make no mistake, it's a legit number. He's earned it. He took it, like Johnny Cash, one piece at a time.
Like McGriff (and he is like McGriff in many ways; check out David Schoenfield's excellent piece on each man's chance for the Hall), Palmeiro is quiet and steady (top-10 in games played nine times between 1991-2001, top-10 in slugging and OPS seven times since '91, and top-10 in home runs each of the last 10 seasons).
But at its heart, Palmeiro's 500 isn't about consistency or cool, and it isn't about a grudge; it's about magic and beauty, about a silky, effortless touch and a ball that seems to voluntarily leap from the bat in gratitude for being part of something timed and pitched so perfectly.
His 500 makes no sense. It's too lovely and long to be powerful, too slow to be as quick as it is.
When people get all misty-eyed about baseball, when they tell you, like Annie Savoy, that they believe in the Church of Baseball, they're thinking about the mystery of Palmeiro's wrist-flick, smooth-loop swing.
And when they look at his 500, they'll know their faith is justified.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.