Aaron doesn't have to worry -- yet

Wednesday, September 9, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ST. LOUIS -- Hank Aaron need not start worrying about Mark McGwire. Not yet, at least.

His record may be out of reach, even for baseball's biggest arms. The first name in the Baseball Encyclopedia may still be the last word in home runs when Big Mac's mighty swing is a memory.

Aaron's is the home run record that was made to last: 755 in a career. In a season of unprecedented slugging -- with three hitters at 50 or more homers by Labor Day -- Aaron's achievement still inspires awe and reverence.

Babe Ruth has been bettered. Roger Maris has been bettered. But Aaron has stood the test of time largely untested.

Twenty-two years after his last official appearance at home plate, he has yet to face a serious challenge.

McGwire might get there someday, if his body holds up and his incentive remains intact. But when he hit No. 62 Tuesday night -- No. 449 of his career -- he was still 306 short of where Aaron stopped. If you're handicapping the career home run competition, the shortest odds should be on Ken Griffey Jr., who started play Tuesday with 344 home runs and two more months until his 29th birthday.

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McGwire will be 35 years old on Oct. 1. Do the math. If he were to average 50 home runs per year for six more seasons -- and what chance is there of that? -- he'd still have some work left to do. The St. Louis slugger has taught us to be leery of limitations, has redrawn the line between routine and remarkable, but even a pioneer reaches a point of diminishing returns.

Aaron hit 245 home runs after his 35th birthday, Ruth only 198. Improved training methods, lucrative salary levels and the designated hitter have all served to prolong playing careers (to say nothing of nutrition, chemistry and expansion), but age is inexorable and decline is inevitable.

"Of course I'm going to play as long as I am healthy," McGwire said the other day. "I will keep as healthy as I can. But I don't really want to think about (longevity). I just want to enjoy the moment right now."

This is as it should be. With so much focus on the single-season home run record, McGwire's view on career numbers is necessarily blurry. More than most modern players, he has learned to cherish the moment.

Between 1992 and 1996, McGwire appeared on the Oakland A's disabled list seven different times for assorted injuries to his rib cage, heel, foot and back. He has lost the equivalent of almost two full seasons on the DL, including most of his prime years of 29 and 30, and, in the process, perhaps another 100 home runs.

While McGwire always has been among baseball's most prolific power hitters on a per-capita basis, he has logged more plate appearances in each of the last two years than in any of the preceding six seasons. His health has been such a constant concern that among the first people he hugged after whacking No. 61 was Barry Weinberg, the team trainer who followed him from Oakland to St. Louis.

"Barry and I have gone through so much," McGwire said. "Through my back injuries. Through my foot injuries. The only time that Barry and I have been apart is just the two months when I was traded over here last year, so he has seen 400-plus home runs."

Only 20 players -- all of them retired -- have hit more home runs in the major leagues than has Mark McGwire, and he will probably pass Carl Yastrzemski (452) by season's end. If he can stay healthy, and avoid labor impasses, he should be flirting with No. 500 about this time next year.

When a man is built like a tree, it is perilous to suggest he has a ceiling. but only two men in history have reached 700 home runs and both of them surpassed 500 before their 35th birthday.

His recent slugging notwithstanding, Mark McGwire still has some catching up to do.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.