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Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Updated: July 4, 6:40 PM ET
There's still strength in numbers

By Jim Caple
Page 2

Frank Thomas hit his 500th home run and Craig Biggio reached the 3,000 hit mark on the same day last week in baseball's most remarkable statistical convergence since Derek Jeter scored his 1,000th run the same night he scored with his 1,000th woman.
Off Base
Back in ancient times, when we still thought phones were for talking to people, we would have considered Thomas and Biggio reaching those marks a very big deal. Sadly, we've become so jaded by such milestones recently that we can't get excited unless there is also a bobblehead to mark the occasion. Heck, when Sammy Sosa became just the fifth player with 600 career home runs, about the only people who cared were the fans who have him on their fantasy teams.

Some people say this lack of excitement is because baseball's milestones have been watered down and don't mean what they once did. After all, when Alex Rodriguez hits his 500th home run later this season, he will be the eighth player to do so in the past 12 years. In other words, the 500 Club is less exclusive than MySpace these days, right?

Well, no.

Consider this: In the first 64 years of modern big league baseball only four players reached the 500 home run mark and it rightly became an illustrious mark. Then in the next 14 seasons, eight players did so, a virtually identical surge in 500 Club membership to our current one. Did the addition of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and the others during the stretch cheapen the milestone? Of course not.

Similarly, Babe Ruth was the only player with 600 home runs in the first 68 years of the 20th century. In the next three years, 600 Club membership tripled with the addition of Mays and Aaron. Baseball then went 31 years without anyone else cracking the club. When Ken Griffey Jr. reaches the mark in a couple weeks, there will be three new members in a six-season span. Three new members in the past 36 years hardly is a lowering of standards, even if all three joined since Google started up.

Meanwhile, beginning with Robin Yount and George Brett in 1993, 11 players have joined the 3,000 hit club in the past 16 seasons, compared to 16 players in the previous 100 years of baseball. Like the 500 homer and 600 homer milestones, this reflects several things.

1. The DH and advances in medicine allow players to play longer and put 3,000 hits and 500 home runs within reach for more people.

2. Ballparks and strike zones have both shrunk, increasing production.

3. Expansion has diluted pitching, further increasing offense.

4. Batters are stronger thanks to enhanced training, both approved (Wheaties, spinach and actual weightlifting) and unapproved (steroids and HGH).

5. And finally, often overlooked but as significant as everything else, there are more teams and players now, so it only stands to reason that we see more players reaching milestones. As the seasons pass and the league expands, more players are going to reach these milestones.

Does that cheapen the 500 Club or 3,000 Hit Club? No, because "cheapen" is too strong a word. But as with all stats -- including those piled up against inferior competition due to the color ban, or lost due to years of war service or racist barriers -- you have to consider the circumstances in which they were produced.

Membership cards in these milestone clubs may seem easier than ever to obtain, but that's only if you don't look at the thousands of players still standing on the sidewalk behind the velvet rope with no chance of ever getting past the bouncers.

BOXSCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
Biggio has taken a lot of criticism this season about inching slowly toward the 3,000 hit mark, with his average dipping to .219 in mid-June. But he closed in on the mark in a rush, with a trio of three-hit games the past couple weeks and a five-hit game Thursday that matched a career high and got him to 3,000.

His line:

6 AB 1 R 5 H 1 RBI

Biggio was thrown out at second trying to stretch his 3,000th hit into a double but a guy with that many hits is entitled to such things. And it's better than what happened to George Brett when he reached the 3,000 hit mark with a four-hit game. After singling for his 3,000th hit, he stepped off first base to acknowledge the crowd and bask in the moment … and was promptly picked off.

TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP
When A-Rod does hit his 500th home run, the New York Post probably will write a headline that reads: "And Not One Of Them Mattered." The paper that somehow decided it was news when a ballplayer went to a strip club (the next thing you know, there will be a story on ballplayers going to Hooters) now is appalled that A-Rod's wife wore a shirt with profanity written on the back. Yes, it was an inappropriate shirt to wear to a ballgame, but we're talking about Yankee Stadium, where "sucks" is practically an officially licensed word. If the paper wants real profanity, it should send a reporter out to the bleachers. And yes, Off-Base knows that the language in Fenway Park is every bit as bad.

The annual award for Worst All-Star Selection goes to Colorado closer Brian Fuentes, who had an interesting day Sunday. He found out the players voted him onto the All-Star team the same day he was demoted from the closer role because he was struggling so much  four blown saves in a row, six for the season. He's barely converted 75 percent of his save chances (remember home teams leading in the ninth inning win an average of 90 percent of the time regardless of who is the closer).

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.