Leader of a pack: Big Hurt belts big one

Thomas leader of prestigious pack

Welcome to the club, Frank Thomas.

Now, please move away from the door -- we wouldn't want you to get bowled over by the next wave.

The 500 Home Run Club, which the Toronto designated hitter has just joined, remains one of the most exclusive in baseball. Thomas is just the 21st member among the more than 16,500 who have worn a Major League uniform -- which says all you need to know about the privilege.

And the fact he triggered an expected 2007 avalanche into the club tells you what a privilege it is to watch the current generation.

Before the season has run its course, all things remaining normal, The Club will also welcome Alex Rodriguez (492 homers through June 27), Jim Thome (482) and Manny Ramirez (481) -- with Gary Sheffield (472) a bonus possibility.

This is an amazing list, considering the most new members The Club has initiated in any previous season is two: Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews in 1967, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson in 1971, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro in 2003.

It is not, however, an argument for the devaluation of the milestone. That's been a popular cry lately, amid all the big long-ball numbers swirling above the game, which also include Barry Bonds' stalking of 755, Sosa crossing 600 and Ken Griffey Jr. approaching it:

"Five hundred is the new 400. A nice, but no longer anointing, number." Home runs have become too frequent and too accessible, goes the debate, for 500 of them to still rank as a pedestal.

Nonsense, all of it. There is still a line separating mortals from the next level, and 500 remains the threshold into the clouds.

Arguments that home runs have become too available inevitably list such factors as smaller ballparks, tighter baseballs, improved equipment, better conditioning, diluted pitching staffs (along with one noteworthy suspicion, but this isn't a chemical forum).

Yet you can counter those points with others conveniently overlooked: Tougher coast-to-coast and day-to-day scheduling, specialized pitching staffs which make every at-bat rugged, improved conditioning of pitchers, too.

We do concede one element that makes it easier to be a home run hitter today: The acceptance of strikeouts as a tradeoff for power, of that swing-from-the-heels mentality.

Seventies sluggers such as Gorman Thomas (45 homers and 175 strikeouts in 1979) and Dave Kingman (36 bombs and 153 whiffs in 1975) were considered liabilities.


Last season, Ryan Howard's 181 strikeouts were excused by his 58 homers; he was National League MVP.

But that's just a matter of swinging with the times. The fact such a crowd now mills in front of The Club is simply testimony to a special band of batters.

The most special of them is A-Rod, who has found amid much scrutiny and speculation the focus to compile another jaw-dropping season. At a month shy of his 32nd birthday, he is destined to become, by far, the youngest to join The Club; that record belongs to Jimmie Foxx, who was a month shy of his 33rd birthday when he connected for No. 500 on Sept. 24, 1940.

That also puts Rodriguez on a speed track compared to the game's other fabled sluggers: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sosa and Griffey all reached 500 at 34.

A-Rod, at times, may make it look easy. But it is anything but, and to say otherwise cheapens the art, and the work and dedication it has taken to hone it to such levels. Not to mention the durability, an often-overlooked factor.

Easy? The classic observation that sport's toughest challenge is squarely hitting a round ball with a round bat may need to be amended: The toughest task is hitting that ball a long way when a round number beckons.

Ask Andres Galarraga, who valiantly tried to prolong his career with the Mets in 2005 in pursuit of 400, but gave in to his body and retired -- with 399.

Or, Fred McGriff, who went "home" to Tampa Bay in 2004, desperate to join The Club, but gave up after 72 frustrating at-bats and two home runs -- which set his total at 493.

Projecting the future nominees to The Club can be equally futile. Some on a 500 pace can be derailed by various elements, never to get there. Others, still faceless or nameless, will.

In 2003, motivated by Sosa and Palmeiro joining The Club a month apart, Sports Illustrated declared 500 homers a dulled feat, and for evidence pointed out that Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Bagwell and McGriff were next. None made it.

Nor did such hot candidates as Jose Canseco (431 at 35; finished with 462), Albert Belle (retired at 34 with 381), Dale Murphy (378 at 34; finished with 398) or Darryl Strawberry (280 at 29; retired eight years later with 335).

Still, we intrepidly handicap The Club futures, in descending probability:

• Andruw Jones: 354 at 30; once he gets his head out of the free-agency cloud, should be all downhill.

• Albert Pujols: 266 at 27; question is, will he threaten A-Rod's age record?

• Vladimir Guerrero: 352 at 31; amazingly consistent, with between 32 and 44 homers eight of the last nine seasons.

• David Ortiz: 244 at 31; can get there at his more recent clip (186 homers since the start of 2003 season).

• Miguel Cabrera: 121 at 24; the baby in the field, but that's not baby fat, so he has to watch his weight.

• Carlos Delgado: 418 at 35; one of those one-time cinches, but last week's 35th birthday found him in a deep rut.

• Alfonso Soriano: 223 at 31; has too many holes in his swing to be a bona fide threat.

• Ryan Howard: 100 at 27; yup, he's actually two months older than Pujols, having been an old rookie, so he faces a steep road.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.