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Tuesday, October 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grip on Sports: Baseball’s big numbers just don’t seem to have the impact they used to

The Los Angeles Angels Albert Pujols follows through on a solo home run, the 600th homer of his career, as Minnesota Twins catcher Chris Gimenez watches during the fourth inning Saturday in Anaheim, California. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
The Los Angeles Angels Albert Pujols follows through on a solo home run, the 600th homer of his career, as Minnesota Twins catcher Chris Gimenez watches during the fourth inning Saturday in Anaheim, California. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Numbers have been at the core of baseball since Abner Doubleday allegedly invented the game. The apocryphal story goes the former Union officer decided the game should be nine innings long because it was as high as anyone he knew could count. Read on.

••••••••••

• I made up that story, of course. But it fits. Because historians have determined Doubleday’s founding of the game was a fairy tale. The most common accepted theory about the game’s origins these days involves evolution.

Not Darwinian evolution, because baseball isn’t a higher species, but a slow evolution from British games like rounders and cricket.

But that’s besides the point, which was … OK, now I remember. Numbers.

It’s a train of thought – almost derailed there for a minute – brought to you by the number 600.

That’s the number of home runs Albert Pujols has in his career. He reached that magic number last night, doing it with some panache, hitting a fourth-inning grand slam for the Angels in a 7-2 win over the Twins.

(Speaking of numbers, Pujols’ grand slam was part of seven hit yesterday around baseball, a number that’s never been reached before in one day. Even the Mariners’ Mike Zunino (pictured) joined in, stroking a grand slam and driving in a career-best seven runs.)

Throughout most Baby Boomers lifetime, the number 714 was as important as your bike-lock combination or your home address. It’s just one of those numbers you seemed to know instinctively.

Why? Because for almost 40 years that was the number of home runs Babe Ruth hit. The Sultan of Swat held the career homer mark from The Depression through the Nixon White House. And the number seemed unassailable.

Baby Boomers in New York grew up with the idea Mickey Mantle could break it. He would come up almost 200 short.

Other parts of the country had their favorites as well, guys like Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson in the Midwest and Willie Mays out on the Left Coast. Only Mays would come within sneezing distance.

But there was one guy quietly piling up numbers.

Hank Aaron chased down Ruth in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s the same way he did everything: with ruthless efficiency. He finally caught and passed him in April of 1974, accompanied by death threats and stress none of us could ever understand.

Aaron’s 755 became the gold standard. For a short while.

Then steroids and the like invaded baseball. It seemed as if every skinny outfielder in the world was putting on 50 pounds and driving the ball to Marin County with little effort.

Guys like Manny Ramirez and Rafeal Palmerio and Mark McGwire began posting home run numbers unlike anything we had ever seen, culminated by Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds each hitting 125 home runs one season. OK, I exaggerate. But the numbers they put up – Sosa hit more than 60 home runs in a season three times and Bonds hit 73 one year – seemed like exaggerations in and of themselves.

It was only a matter of time before Aaron’s career number would be eclipsed.

Sosa couldn’t do it. He flamed out at 609. But Bonds chugged on, undeterred by criticism or 99-mile-an-hour fastballs.

Were rules broken? Only a simpleton, or a die-hard Giants fan, would deny they were. Performance enhancing drugs were outlawed, even if baseball, basking in the glow the big home run numbers emitted, seemingly ignored their use.

So Bonds pushed the record home run number to 762, a mark that seems unbreakable without the help of medical science.

And in doing so, served to devalue all of baseball’s numbers.

As Pujols approached the magic 600 mark – despite drug-induced help over the years, only nine men have ever reached that total – it was met with a collective yawn.

Why? Overload seems to be the answer.

Of the 27 men who have hit 500 or more home runs, less than half finished their career before 1987, when the National League was 101 years old. In the past 30 years, 15 players have cleared that hurdle.

Of the nine who have hit 600 or more, only Mays, Ruth and Aaron played before the PED era. Back when they player, the number was so enticing as to hold almost mythological significance.

Now passing it just seems like another made-up story.

•••

WSU: It wasn’t all that good of a day around the Pac-12. At the softball world series, UCLA was eliminated (by Washington, which is joined by Oregon in the semifinals) but not before legend Lisa Fernandez was ejected for bumping an umpire in the Bruins early win over Texas A&M. The Huskies will face Florida and the Ducks defending champion Oklahoma. … In the baseball regionals, UCLA and Stanford saw their seasons end, with the Cardinal defeat to Cal State Fullerton ending the career of coach Mark Marquess. Arizona stayed alive in the losers bracket while Oregon State played like the top seed it is and rolled to another win. … College coaches are learning how to live with the graduate transfer rule. … Colorado’s team wants to get back to the finals of The Basketball Tournament.

Gonzaga: Last night the Mariners hosted Gonzaga Night. So Jacob Thorpe joined in. And put together this story, accompanied by Tyler Tjomsland’s photographs. … BYU’s baseball season ended yesterday with a loss to Stanford.

EWU: Will Cooper Kupp have an impact in the NFL? Jim Allen examines that question today from all sides. 

Empire: There was no offense in Spokane last night, so there will be no Intense Conference title this season. The Empire lost 33-16 to the Arizona Rattlers at the Arena, so Arizona clinches the conference title. Jim Meehan has more in this story.

Mariners: Whitney Ogden has the Mariners Log today. We added the links to the bottom.

Seahawks: Eddie Lacy wants to take the field for the Hawks this season in the best shape of his life. He’s getting a lot of help in this quest.

•••       

• One thing about the Inland Northwest’s spring: It’s different every day. Yesterday was warm, sunny and muggy. Today is expected to be cool, wet and, well, juts plain different. The changes makes it hard to procrastinate as much as I would like. At 8 last night, I checked today’s weather, mumbled something under my breath and went outside to mow the lawn. I knew there wouldn’t be the opportunity today. Until later … 

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