There is never a time -- never a time -- when I look at Sammy Sosa's page on Baseball-Reference.com and do not come away with a shock. Sure, I know this stuff. I KNOW Sosa beat Roger Maris' famed 61-homers-in-a-season three times in his career (as many as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds combined). Three times.
I KNOW he hit 609 home runs in his career (man, 600 home runs; even as I type the words, they shock). I KNOW that from 1996 through 2003 -- just eight seasons -- he hit more home runs than Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, Al Kaline, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby and a bunch of other Hall of Famers hit during their entire careers.
In fact, he hit more home runs in those eight seasons (408 homers) than Babe Ruth did in his best eight-year stretch (367, 1920-27). More than Barry Bonds hit in his best eight-year stretch (369, 1997-2004). More than Mark McGwire's best stretch (354) or Jimmie Foxx's (348), or Mickey Mantle's (320), or Willie Mays' (303), or Ralph Kiner's (329), or Jim Thome's (330) or well, anyone else's.
I KNOW these things, but they jolt me a bit every time. Sammy Sosa's career is a perpetual surprise, sort of like how watching the movie This is Spinal Tap always gives me a line I never quite noticed before. It's a strange thing, I never look at a United States map and think, "Holy cow, I didn't realize that New York was east of Chicago." But I always look at Sammy Sosa's career numbers and think, "I cannot believe the guy hit more than 60 home runs THREE times."*
*Five other baseball players whose numbers constantly surprise me:
1. Joe Sewell: In his long career, he struck out 114 times. That's his WHOLE CAREER. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is 842-114, and in 1925, when he had 699 plate appearances, he struck out four times.
2. Ted Kluszewski: Since 1950, there have been only three seasons where a player hit 40-plus homers while striking out fewer than 40 times. Those three seasons were all by Big Klu. As an aside to an aside, he was famed for his big arms -- he would walk around with rolled up sleeves -- and when he was the hitting coach for the Big Red Machine, he would walk up to people, flex his arm and ask the riddle: "Do you know what this is?" The answer: "A Polish joke stopper."
3. Nolan Ryan: From 1971 through 1981, Ryan led the league in strikeouts seven times. He led the league in fewest hits per nine innings seven times. But he led the league in WALKS eight times and his record was only 176-148.
4. Gaylord Perry: From 1969 through 1975, he threw 300-plus innings every year but one. The amazing part isn't that he threw the spitball. The amazing part is that his arm stayed attached.
5. Stan Musial: His stats page is just a symphony of numbers -- the man led the league in every single thing except homers and stolen bases. In his most famous year, 1948, he finished second in home runs and led the league in hits, doubles, triples, runs, RBIs, total bases, extra base hits, runs created, OPS+, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, an amazing achievement. But here's something just as amazing: He led the league in EVERY ONE OF THOSE CATEGORIES at least one other time in his career.
Here's the thing about Sosa's surprise home run numbers: They're not much fun now. This isn't specifically about Sosa. One of the enduring byproducts of the Selig Era is that home run numbers are simply not as much fun. No matter where you may stand on the whole performance-enhancing drug issue -- maybe you are sickened by steroid use, maybe you don't care at all, maybe you are in the middle -- it's clear that the wonder of a player having a huge home run season is mostly gone.
Not to go all nostalgic, but sure, I remember being a kid when George Foster had his 52 homer season, when Dave Kingman had 29 home runs at the All-Star break, when Mike Schmidt hit four home runs in a game* ... these things ignited the imagination. This was one thing baseball had that no other sport had. (Yes, it was huge when O.J. went for 2,000 yards; yes, Gretzky's preposterous 1981-82 season when he scored 50 goals in 39 games was exciting; yes, I remember when David Thompson scored 73 points on the final day of the NBA season in an effort to win the scoring title -- he lost anyway because George Gervin scored 63 later that same day. One thing the Ice Man could do was he could finger roll.)
*When Schmidt hit those four home runs -- that was in 1976 -- he was the eighth guy to do it since 1900. And that was a fairly well-known baseball trivia answer during my childhood: Lou Gehrig, Chuck Klein, Pat Seerey, Gil Hodges, Joe Adcock, Rocky Colavito, Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt. Then Bob Horner did it. So that made nine.
Four guys have done it since, and how many casual baseball fans could name them: Hard Hittin' Mark Whiten, Mike Cameron, Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado? You probably remember Cameron and Green had their four-homer games within three weeks of each other ... I think in many ways that was the point when a lot of baseball fans, rightly or wrongly, said, "OK, this home run thing is officially ridiculous now."
But in my mind, no other sport has anything quite like the home run. No other statistic counts quite as well. You don't have to average homers by game to have them make sense like you do basketball points or rushing yards. You don't have to double-count homers like you do touchdowns (if a running back scores, the offensive line and play-caller have to get some credit) or goals (which generally feature an assist). A homer is all yours.
We as fans have long totaled up home runs every way possible -- we total up home runs hit in games, home runs hit in weeks, home runs hit in months. During the season, we might double up home runs at the midway point of the season just to speculate how many a player might hit. We count home runs for seasons and careers. And every step along the way, home run numbers can mean something to baseball fans. The numbers can give us an image. Pick a number -- any number, 1 to 755 -- and it's like that number will represent a player to me.
1: Well, that's Duane Kuiper, of course, my hero. That's how many home runs he hit in his career.
23: I immediately think of Fred Lynn. He hit 23 home runs every season from 1984-87. He was old by then, beat up, a once-great player who was never quite the same after leaving Fenway and after hitting so many walls. He was a 23-home run hitter ... he's the image in my mind.
27: I think of Al Kaline. Sturdy, solid, throws to the right base, plays the game right, hits you 27 home runs.
32: I think of Eddie Murray. He always seemed to hit 32 home runs -- maybe 31 homers or 33 homers, but right around 32. And 32 home runs represents something: It's enough homers to make a star, but, generally speaking, not enough to make someone an MVP. And that's Eddie Murray: Finished top five in the MVP voting seven times, but never won the award.
40: That's Adam Dunn. He's hit exactly 40 in each of the last four years ... and he has a good chance to do it again this year.
51: That's Cecil Fielder, 1990, first player to hit 50-plus in 14 years, first American League player to hit 50 home runs since Maris and Mantle did it 30 years earlier. What's fun about Fielder's year is that it was his first full year in the major leagues. He had spent 1989 playing baseball in Japan, where they called him "Wild Bear."
56: Ken Griffey. He did it twice, back-to-back years, 1997 and '98.
Then, of course, there are the big numbers: 493 is Lou Gehrig, 536 is Mantle, 660 is Mays; 714 is the Babe; 755 is Hank Aaron and so on.
But even less famous home run numbers mean something: Say, 252 homers? Joe Torre, Bobby Murcer and Bret Boone are the three players who have exactly 252 homers (along with Pat Burrell, but he'll soon be gone from the club). Think about those three players and how different they were, how different their paths to that odd number of home runs were. Torre was a likable catcher from Brooklyn, he once hit into four double plays in a game, he became a legend managing the Yankees. Murcer was supposed to be a Yankees legend, the next Mickey Mantle, he had some sensational years for the Yankees in a low-scoring era and then was traded away ... he never quite recovered. Bret Boone was a third-generation Boone baseball player who developed big power later in his career ... Jose Canseco claimed Boone was a steroid user in his book Juiced, which sort of takes us back to the beginning of this story.
And I don't mean to say that home run numbers are lost now -- I still love them. But, yeah, they don't mean quite as much, can't mean as much. It has changed the last 10 years. Look: I can't really tell you I had much reaction when the New York Times reported Tuesday that Sammy Sosa tested positive in that "anonymous" drug test in 2003. I'm numb to steroid reports now, and I don't understand why anonymous sources continue to leak this information, and I don't have any earthly idea where this puts Sammy Sosa on the spectrum. I guess it takes him from the "never tested positive but was widely suspected of steroid use" list to the "reportedly tested positive in an anonymous test in 2003 and also was widely suspected of steroid use list." Or something.
Sosa denies everything, and he's innocent until proven guilty, but this is part of the problem with the Selig Era -- lines are blurred. What is innocent? What is guilty? How should we view Sammy Sosa if he took steroids? How should we view him if he did not and this report is wrong? Are we really going to have to endure a new name leaking out every couple of months for the next 10 years? Who the heck wants that? And, yet again people wonder: "What about the Hall of Fame?"
I guess over time I've just become desensitized to the whole thing. Many took steroids. Many celebrated the big numbers. The union and management did not put in testing for a long time. I don't mean to downplay it or blow it all of proportion either. I just have no rage or disbelief left to give. This is baseball in the Selig Era. Now, at the least, there's testing and there's awareness and there's a sense (right or wrong) that the numbers have pulled back a little bit.
But no matter what, it's not as much fun to count home runs. As of right now, Albert Pujols is on pace to hit 55 home runs. Mark Teixeira is on pace to hit 53 home runs. This stuff used to get me pretty fired up. Now ... eh.
And Sosa's remarkable home run numbers? They still surprise me, but probably not the way they once did. Once, a few years ago, I wrote a column about how much I loved the bubble gum they put in baseball card packs. Well, someone then sent me a huge box of that baseball card bubble gum. I was really pumped up. I chewed the gum and chewed it, and soon my tongue was raw, and my jaws were sore and the gum which had thrilled me as a boy, well, yeah, I got sick of it. I guess this is the same thing.