The home run count of Mark McGwire clicks away incessantly, like
the spinning numbers on a speeding car's odometer. Baseball had
never seen a 500 like this. Daytona, maybe, but baseball? Not
even close. It wasn't just that McGwire blew away the old record
pace of Babe Ruth--after belting No. 499 on Aug. 4, he could
have gone 0 for 312 and still hit 500 home runs in fewer at bats
than the Bambino--but it was also that McGwire hit the last
hundred quicker than the hundred before that, which came quicker
than the hundred before that, and so on and so on. Zero to 500
in 5,487 at bats of pure acceleration.
Needing to hit one home run on the last day of a homestand last
Thursday to fulfill his wish to hit No. 500 in St. Louis,
McGwire cracked two off San Diego Padres righthander Andy Ashby
to give Cardinals fans a preview of the dash to 600. The timing
recalled his two most historic blasts of last season: No. 62,
the one that broke Roger Maris's single-season record, also
occurred on the final day of a homestand, and No. 70 resulted
from his last swing of the year. There were also the two bombs
he launched within an hour of the only two times that Sammy Sosa
surpassed him in the 1998 home run race. "Every time he's gotten
close to a number he's just shrugged off the pressure," says St.
Louis manager Tony La Russa. "It's like he's oblivious to the
pressure. In fact, he thrives even more on it."
The celebration of 500 seemed all the more joyous because just
before hitting it, McGwire revealed that four months ago he
stopped taking androstenedione, a substance that the body
converts to an anabolic steroid, out of concern that kids were
following his lead. "This shows that andro is irrelevant," he
Five hundred home runs is a power hitter's crowning destination,
a hallowed achievement rarer than 3,000 hits or 300 wins. On the
day after McGwire became the 16th player to swat 500, the
Padres' Tony Gwynn became the 22nd to get 3,000 hits, and on the
day after that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Wade Boggs joined Gwynn
as the 23rd. Indeed, the magic of 500 home runs remains so great
it might even survive the barrage of expansion-era homers in the
last decade that has threatened to cheapen baseball's most
Only three players who began their careers from 1960 to '80 hit
500 homers: Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Eddie Murray.
McGwire is the first from the '80s to do it. He could be joined
within the next four years by Jose Canseco (who as of Sunday
needed 72), Barry Bonds (73), Ken Griffey Jr. (115), Fred
McGriff (116), Albert Belle (152) and Sammy Sosa (185). Juan
Gonzalez (who needed 173) leads another charge of sluggers whose
first full seasons were in the '90s. "There's so many guys with
great numbers, they're going to have to build a new wing for the
Hall of Fame," says McGwire. "Call it a New Generation Wing or
That sentiment was also expressed when many of the Team of the
Century nominees assembled at the All-Star Game in Boston last
month. "I think there's a risk people might forget how great
these guys were," former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson
said as he surveyed the old-timers on hand. "I don't like to
talk about the old days, but if you put Frank Robinson and Boog
Powell in Camden Yards, you'd see 70 home runs every year.
There's no doubt in my mind."
Said Jackson at the same gathering, "There are some great
players today, but as good a player as Barry Bonds is, he's not
Hank Aaron. The only player that could be Hank Aaron is
[Griffey]. As good as all these players are, they're not Willie
Mays; I don't give a s--- if they hit 900 home runs."
Is that really true, however? Is this generation so different
from the post-war boomers? Eight members of the 500 club--Aaron,
Mays, Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey,
Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews--started their journey in the
1950s, when there were only 16 teams in existence. The group
from the '80s almost surely won't end up being as large, even
with 10 more teams swelling the number of candidates.
Certainly single-season measuring sticks of greatness needed to
be recalibrated, with the 50 home runs by Brady Anderson of
Baltimore in 1996 signaling a peso-like devaluation. The 500
home run mark, however, retains its luminosity because it
requires greatness over an extended period. Greg Vaughn, for
instance, hit 50 home runs for the Padres last season, and
that's more than Aaron or Jackson ever had in a single season.
However, he needs 226 more to reach 500, an unlikely task for
someone who turned 34 last month. Five hundred still separates
the immortals from the demigods. And by getting there in record
time, McGwire separated himself even from the elite.
The only question left for him is how high he can go. He's on
his way to challenging Aaron's career home run record of 755,
and he said last Saturday, "I want to play as long as I can."
Through Sunday, McGwire, who will turn 36 two days before this
season ends, was on pace to hit 63 home runs in 1999. That would
leave him with 520 career homers, one behind McCovey and Ted
Williams and 11th on the alltime list. He then could pass Aaron
within four seasons if he maintains his absurd pace of the past
four years (61 home runs per year) or within five seasons even
if he slacks off by more than 20% (to 48). "It's too far away,"
says McGwire when asked to discuss his chances. "I haven't even
had time to think about 500. Baseball is the only sport in which
you don't have time to reflect on what you've done. You
constantly have to worry about tomorrow because there's another
This much he does know: He won't extend his career by becoming a
designated hitter. Aaron hit 22 home runs over his final two
seasons, in 1975 and '76, while playing almost exclusively as a
DH. "I was just talking to my parents when my mom said somebody
asked her if I'd keep going as a DH," McGwire says. "She said,
'No way Mark will do that.' She knows me. I'd get bored. I don't
like the DH rule, and we don't need it. If I were commissioner,
the first thing I'd do is get rid of it."
As it turns out, the owners and the players, in their roles as
labor adversaries, may be the only people who can stop McGwire's
assault on Aaron's record. McGwire told SI last week that if
baseball has a work stoppage after the 2001 season, when the
existing labor agreement is set to expire, he'll quit, no matter
how close he is to Aaron's mark. He's so certain of that he
won't entertain any discussion of a contract extension from the
Cardinals in the meantime. (His contract also runs through 2001,
assuming either he or the club picks up an option for that
"I want no part of being a major league player if we subject
fans to that again," he said, referring to the 1994 and '95 work
stoppage. "I would be too embarrassed to be a player, having put
the fans through that again. I don't care how close I am to the
record or how much money is out there; I wouldn't come back. To
be part of major league baseball after putting everyone through
that again? You're crazy if you think I'd do that."
In Pursuit of Aaron
Graphic evidence suggests that Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr.
have the upward mobility to overtake Hank Aaron as baseball's
career home run leader. Griffey is on the fastest track of all
time, and McGwire has climbed astonishingly the last few years.
Lest anyone get too caught up in projections, however, let
Jimmie Foxx be a cautionary tale. He had 500 homers at age 33
and then fizzled out.
755 Hank Aaron [at age 43]
534 Jimmie Foxx [at age 38]
501 Mark McGwire [at age 36]
385 Ken Griffey [at age 30]
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
rate of the last four seasons: 61 homers a year.