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Monday, June 4, 2012

Big Papi is closing in on 400 homers -- in case you haven't heard

Ortiz has had plenty to smile about already this year.

When David Ortiz homered last Friday at Toronto, it gave him 13 long balls for the season. Much has been made of Big Papi's big start, but there has been almost no mention of the milestone he is quickly closing in on—400 home runs.

Ortiz now has 391 homers, and if he stays hot he may get the nine he needs by the All-Star break. Yet no one seems to be paying much attention.

Back when Carl Yastrzemski reached the 400 mark for Boston in the summer of 1979, all of Red Sox Nation and much of the baseball world was carefully tracking his progress. A month-long "Yaz Watch" ensued after homer No. 399, and Captain Carl finally got his big one off Oakland’s Mike Morgan at Fenway Park on July 24. His 3000th hit came a few months later, making Yastrzemski just the fourth major leaguer (joining Aaron, Mays, and Musial) to achieve both distinctions.

Why the dramatic dip in interest this time around? Blame it on steroids and expansion.

Yaz about to uncoil his 400th home run swing.

Yastrzemski was just the 18th major leaguer to hit 400 homers, and when he did it the number was considered more or less a free ticket to the Hall of Fame. Now, thanks in large part to weaker pitching and the huge uptick in home runs during the steroid era (roughly 1990-2003),there are 48 members of the 400 Club—with Ortiz and Adam Dunn of the White Sox (currently at 382) hoping to make it an even 50 this year.

The achievement simply doesn't carry as much significance as it once did, and it's too bad. Baseball is a game of numbers, and one of the more magical numbers in the game has been diluted. But any way you look at it, it's still a hell of an accomplishment.

Ortiz came to the Red Sox for the 2003 season with 58 lifetime homers. In his first nine seasons with Boston, he averaged nearly 36 a season (plus 12 more in the postseason). In 2006 he set a Red Sox season record with 54.

Yes, the New York Times reported in 2009 that Papi was on the infamous list of 104 MLB players alleged to have tested positive for banned substances in a 2003 non-punitive drug-testing survey. The league and Player's Association has disputed some of the names on the list; however, and the list remains sealed. Papi himself said he never knowingly took steroids—although he did apologize in an August 2009 press conference at Yankee Stadium for being "a little bit careless" when purchasing legal vitamins and supplements.

His complete innocence remains unclear, but Ortiz has never tested positive since more stringent testing went into effect and remains one of the most productive and clutch sluggers in baseball. Whether or not he makes the Hall of Fame—and I'd put him on the fence at this point—he deserves to get plenty of kudos as he approaches and then hits homer No. 400.

The way Papi is going now, there will be plenty more to come.

Big Papi's first 2012 blast came in the home opener on April 14.

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