When Andres Galarraga announced his retirement last week, he was just one short of 400 career home runs. Despite battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma twice during the past five years, he had been trying to give it one more go with the Mets -- hoping to reach that milestone. He would have been the first Venezuelan to do so -- no player from that country has hit more homers or driven in more runs (1,425).
Such milestones -- the round ones, like 300 wins, 400 (or 500 or 600) homers, 3,000 hits -- haven't always been so important. When Sam Rice retired just short of 3,000 hits in 1934, nobody cared all that much. His greatness was noted, not the mark he had fallen short of.
But in the 1960s, milestone-mania took hold, and since then the big marks have either become: A) more meaningful, as they reflect on how modern ballplayers are carrying on great traditions and surpassing the immortals; or B) less meaningful, as milestone-pursuing has become an end in itself, fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, Tommy John surgery, the designated hitter, and lots of opportunities with desperate expansion teams.
Soon, Rafael Palmeiro will reach 3,000 hits (he needs 78). Sometime in the next year or two, Sammy Sosa will have the good fortune to hit No. 600 -- will it be in Comiskey Park? When Craig Biggio gets plunked for the record-breaking 268th time, who will be the lucky pitcher? And what will happen when (or if) Bonds hits No. 755 and 756?
Such are the numbers and records that keep us watching ... and players playing.
Sam Rice (2,987 hits)
Rice began his major-league career with the Senators as a pitcher, but he failed on the mound. Good thing: manager Clark Griffith sent him packing ... to the outfield, where Rice put together a Hall of Fame career and played on three pennant-winning teams.
Rice was already 27 years old in 1917, his first full season as an outfielder. In 1918, he was in the army, and played only seven games. Despite the late start and the lost year, Rice came mighty close to 3,000 hits, and was good enough in his final season (with the Indians, at age 44) to hit .293.
If Rice had played about 20 more games, he could have broken the magic 3,000 mark, and he was certainly good enough to justify a roster spot. But he retired after the 1934 season, having played 19 years in Washington and one in Cleveland.
Why did he quit just short of the mark? According to "Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia," he was asked this question many times. His response: "You must remember, there wasn't much emphasis on 3,000 hits when I quit. And to tell the truth, I didn't know how many hits I had."
Wade Boggs (3,010 hits)
Boggs made it no secret that he wanted 3,000 hits very badly, and that he'd hang on for the milestone despite his declining skills. He hit .292 for the Yankees in 1997, which sounds pretty good, but it was only his second major league season under .300, and he drove in a measly 28 runs. The Yankees let him go as a free agent after the 1997 season. Boggs had 2,800 hits at the time.