2 vets close, but next may take awhile

Milestone: Rickey Henderson and Harold Baines will need to hang on if they are to join baseball's exclusive club.

April 17, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Now that Cal Ripken has become the third player in the past year to get his 3,000th career hit, the focus can shift to the on-deck circle.

Who's next?

There are two veteran players close enough to get there if they can just hang on a little longer. New York Mets outfielder Rickey Henderson and Orioles designated hitter Harold Baines are both within striking distance.

With Ripken at 3,000 Henderson needs 177 hits, a total that probably would require him to play into 2001 to accumulate. Baines needs 207 but may have to stay at the party longer to get enough at-bats in a DH platoon situation.

If not one of them, the wait for another 3,000-hit celebration could last well into the next decade.

The next serious candidate is 35-year-old former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who is at 2,158 but should get close during the term of his current five-year contract with the Texas Rangers.

San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds is 2 months older and at 2,010 hits a full season farther away, but he has extra incentive, saying this spring that he hopes to stay in the game long enough to reach his godfather Willie Mays' 660 home runs. To get the needed 215 homers, he'll almost certainly need to play long enough to get 3,000 hits, too.

The most likely of today's veteran stars to get there - and push well beyond - might be Cleveland Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar, a former Oriole who already has 2,007 hits but is just 32. If he can remain healthy and motivated for nine or 10 more years, he has a chance to move into the top five on the all-time hit list.

The same goes for Cincinnati Reds superstar Ken Griffey, who completed last season with 1,742 hits, just before turning 30 years old in November.

Trouble is, Alomar and Griffey are at the leading edge of a generation of players who have accumulated vast wealth and tremendous fame at a much earlier age than the Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers who populate the upper reaches of baseball's statistical hierarchy. They'll probably stay around long enough to climb up the hit list and stand alongside the greatest hitters in history, but how many of the young stars of the 1990s will want to follow?

Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez clearly is the most accomplished hitter of the under-25 set, with 804 hits at the age of 24. If he remains one of the top hitters in the game and plays into his late 30s, he has a chance to take a close look at the 4,000-hit plateau, but will the chance to make history be enough of a carrot to keep players such as Rodriguez in the game that long?

He has already achieved a large measure of financial security, and almost certainly will command a contract worth more than $150 million when he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2000 season. If he wants to, he has the looks and charisma to try his hand in the entertainment business.

The same goes for New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who is a year older than Rodriguez but has a similar hit total (821) and similar service time.

Will baseball be enough to keep them interested for 15 more years?

"Why not?" said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who still regrets that he didn't stay long enough to collect the 57 hits he needed to reach 3,000, "Bill Gates is still working."

Rodriguez is one of those players with a keen sense for the history of the game. He has long identified Ripken as one of the chief influences on his baseball career - and seems destined to replace Ripken as the sport's greatest power-hitting shortstop.

"You look at Alex and you can just see that he enjoys and respects the game," Robinson said. "You never see him do what we used to call `putting it on.' There is no doubt in my mind that - barring a major injury - he'll get there. I think he appreciates it. He knows what has happened in the past and knows that he might have an important place in the history of the game."

Ditto for Jeter, who has emerged as a major star in baseball's biggest market, and recognizes that he has an opportunity to be included someday in the pantheon of Yankee immortals.

But they might be the exceptions. The sport has undergone a huge economic transition that gives younger players less reason to play into middle age and gives teams more reason to shift to younger players.

The payroll explosion of the 1990s created extra incentive for some older players to remain in the game, but the long-term impact may be just the opposite.

Of course, in this era of diluted pitching talent and inflated offensive numbers, it may not take as long to pile up Hall of Fame-caliber statistics.

The top hitters in the league routinely challenge the 200-hit level that has long been the standard for an outstanding season. The number of players who reached 190 hits during 1998 and 1999 was nearly three times as high as the number that reached that level in 1991 and 1992 (12).

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