The hunt for 756 claims another casualty

Every baseball record is made to be broken. Cal Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig. Ichiro topped George Sisler. That’s one of the joys of watching baseball day in and day out.

But even so, some numbers seem more sacred than others. There’s Rogers Hornsby’s modern-era batting average record of .424. There’s Ted Williams’ .406. There’s Joe DiMaggio’s 56. And then there is Hank Aaron’s 755.

For 30 years, Aaron’s number has stood as a testament to longevity. Hammerin’ Hank played 23 seasons, averaging 37 home runs a year. On April 8, 1974, at the age of 40, Aaron hit home run number 715, eclipsing Babe Ruth’s previous record.

Aaron’s was a record that many thought would never be broken. The home run hitters of the late 1970s and 1980s were prolific but not nearly as consistent as Aaron. Reggie Jackson ended his career at 563. Mike Schmidt finished with 548. Certainly, these were impressive, Hall-of-Fame worthy numbers, but Aaron towered above these sluggers.

That is, he towered above these sluggers until what is now known as the Steroid Era of the 1990s when two players – Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – captivated a nation and brought home baseball’s popularity. After the summer of 1998, the home run year, many baseball watchers thought that McGwire or Sosa would challenge Aaron. When the two topped 60 again in 1999, the hunt was on.

But it was not to be. McGwire, whose first missed significant time at ages 29 and 30, his peak offensive years, felt age rush upon him. By the time he turned 38, he had already retired from the game. Had he played until age 42, as Aaron did, he may well have reached the 700s. As it was, when he retired after the 2001 campaign, he still managed to hit a home run every 10 at bats. He had the strength; he had the eye; but the rest of his body wouldn’t let him keep going. Aaron was safe for a few more years.

Meanwhile, Slammin’ Sammy kept on truckin’. In the same year that McGwire retired, Sosa at age 32 became the first player to hit 60 home runs in three different seasons. The sky was the limit was the Cubs’ golden boy. Sosa continued his prolific home run mashing through the 2004 campaign. While slowed a little by injuries and a corked bat incident, he finished the year with 35 home runs in 126 games. Sitting on 574 career home runs, it seemed as though Sosa could have pulled off five more years of 35 home runs, putting him just a few short of Aaron.

But again, age caught up with Sosa at the end of the 2004 season. He missed significant time down the stretch and left Chicago on very bad terms. His arrival in Baltimore led many to believe a career resurgence was on deck. Playing in a cozy ballpark in the middle of a packed lineup, many predicted Sosa would challenge 40 home runs and maybe even 50 in 2005, vaulting him into the 600-club. Again though injury found its way into Sosa’s life. He played 102 pain-filled games, hitting just 14 home runs in the process, his lowest total since 1992.

Sosa with his career average of an astounding 42 home runs a season retired yesterday. He had one contract offer for the 2006 season: a non-guaranteed $500,000 offer from the Washington Nationals. Twelve home runs shy of 600, he opted to take the $123 million he has earned over his 17-year career and call it a day. He was just another slugger out of the game before reaching 38.

But while McGwire’s career was winding down and Sosa’s days of 60 home runs were coming to an end, another power hitter was ascending the throne. This one was no secret and no spring chicken. In 2001 at age 36, the year most sluggers think about hanging up the spikes, Barry Bonds mashed 73 home runs in what probably amounts to the best offensive season ever.

And he didn’t stop there. Bonds, who would eclipse 200 walks in 2004, hit 209 home runs between 2001 and 2004. At the end of 2004, his career total rested at 703, and in fact, Sosa had more home runs through age 36 than Bonds did. But no matter. He had showed no sign of slowing down, and at age 40, he had the Babe’s 714 in his sights and Aaron’s 755 looming on the horizon.

But then, like McGwire before him and Sosa after him, injury struck. He missed nearly all of the 2005 season due to a serious knee injury. When he played in September, though, it was clear that Bonds was still there, homering away. He hit 5 home runs in 42 at bats, bringing him even closer to the Babe.

Now, on the eve of Spring Training and just hours after Sammy Sosa’s retirement, the game is left with one slugger who can challenge Hank Aaron. Sure, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols will probably put up runs at 800 home runs within the decade. But the immediate attention is focused on Barry Bonds.

While future baseball historians (and Hall of Fame voters) will have to grapple with the legacy of the Steroid Era, for now, all eyes on the enigma that is Barry Bonds. He turns 42 in July and is already one of the top five oldest players in the game. Now it’s time to wonder if he can find the strength and stay injury-free over the next seven months. The last 47 home runs are the hardest ones, and for Bonds, it’s no sure thing. After all, Hank Aaron hit just 32 home runs after turning 41 and just 10 after hitting 42.

While many expect Bonds to reach record heights, Hank Aaron may just be a little more comfortable sitting atop his home run perch knowing that history and health is on his side.

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