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3,000 hits -- a milestone among milestones

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- They often say that numbers do not measure the man. They, of course, do not have 3,000 hits.

No one is ever modest about 3,000. No one feigns indifference about reaching the milestone. If 3,000 hits shape our memories of a player's career, then it is a danged fine reminder to possess.

There are few numbers in sports as magical as 3,000. Before this, the last year of the century, it had been reached by just 20 players. That is 20 of the more than 15,000 to have worn a major-league uniform.

Now that Wade Boggs has crossed the threshold, his place in history is assured.

"When you get your 3,000th hit," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "by the time you get back to your locker they should already have your ticket for the Hall of Fame waiting for you."

Torre is not joking. Every member of the 3,000-hit club eligible for the Hall of Fame has been enshrined.

It is the difference between being a great hitter and being one of the greatest.

Bill Madlock won four batting titles and had a career .305 average, but he did not come close to 3,000. Tony Oliva won three batting titles and hit .304 for his career. He fell more than 1,000 hits shy of 3,000. Neither is in the Hall of Fame.

They are not alone. Some of the game's greatest names never reached 3,000. Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Rogers Hornsby, to name more than a few. Joe Morgan, Kirby Puckett, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell from more recent times.

In some cases, injuries or military service cut their time short. Others had precipitous dropoffs late in their careers or simply did not have the consistency throughout their years.

Rickey Henderson is the all-time stolen base king and arguably the game's greatest leadoff hitter, yet during a recent series at Tropicana Field he talked about 3,000 hits as the ultimate goal.

"Getting 3,000 hits is something every player thinks about," said Henderson, who has more than 200 hits to go. "It's not something you think about every day, but it's something on your mind."

If you do not think that 3,000 hits helps a player's reputation, consider the cases of Robin Yount and Tony Perez.

Yount was a career .285 hitter, while Perez was not far behind at .279. Perez had 246 more RBI and 128 more home runs. He made six All-Star teams and played in the World Series five times. Yount made three All-Star teams and played in one World Series. Yet Yount was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Perez has been passed over seven straight years.

The major difference? Yount is in the 3,000-hit club, Perez retired with 2,732.

"It is the pinnacle of being a great hitter," Boggs said. "It is the place where everybody is trying to get to. And a lot of guys go up that mountain, but very few stick their flag in it. I take tremendous pride in knowing I did it."

Should Cal Ripken recover from his recent back injury, the 3,000-hit club could number 23 by the end of the season. Along with 300 victories (reached by 20 pitchers) and 500 home runs (with Mark McGwire expanding that club to 16 this season) it is among the most exclusive of milestones.

"With me, Boggsy and Cal all getting there around the same time, we have a chance to do something pretty special," Gwynn said. "It's the kind of thing where you can go years without seeing someone reach 3,000 and you've got three guys who have a chance to do it in the same month. I hope the fans enjoy it because they might never see something like this again. I know it's been a heck of a ride for us."

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