The hype for collectors and fans alike over the assault by Mark McGwire on Roger Maris' home run record may have been just the tonic baseball needed to jump start interest in the sport at the end of a tumultuous decade filled with labor strife.
But with the bar now set even higher for the single season home run record, what's next? There certainly was interest a couple of years ago when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record of 2,130 games, something that observers had believed wouldn't happen. Although Maris' mark stood for 37 seasons, experts considered the chances for it being eclipsed this season were good because of expansion and the general dilution of pitching talent in baseball. People are even speculating McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey or some other slugger could eclipse the new mark in the next season or two.
But collectors can probably rest assured several other major baseball records, both single season and lifetime, are safe. Many of them are among the oldest in professional sports and those lucky enough to have autographs, baseballs or other memorabilia associated with them should know they are safe for now.
Many of the marks are associated with pitching, due in part to the changed landscape of the game where offense is worshiped and the quality of starting pitching has dropped considerably over the years filled with expansion.
Some marks are likely to fall. Saves in a season--60 isn't out of the question for one year; career saves, walks in a season (McGwire and Sosa figure to get even more next year) and even Pete Rose's mark for lifetime hits could fall sooner than later. Consider future hall-of-famer Paul Molitor; had it not been for an assortment of nagging injuries and three work stoppages, Molitor could have stayed around long enough to seriously challenge Charlie Hustle.
Lifetime victories: Cy Young's mark of 512 wins is safe, probably well into the next millennium. The best pitcher in the game today, Greg Maddux, just got past 200 victories in late August. He would have to duplicate his first decade of starting pitching just to get to 400 victories and even that, at age 42, would leave him more than 100 short. It may be baseball's safest record.
Hitting .400. Some have flirted with this mark, not accomplished in 57 years since Ted Williams turned the trick in a triple crown winning season for the Red Sox. George Brett fell 12 points shy and Tony Gwynn has taken a chance of making it well in to August. But Brett has long since retired and Gwynn's skills have started to deteriorate. No one on the current horizon seems capable of doing it, especially when you consider this year's hitting champions in both leagues will fall at least 50 points below the coveted .400 mark.
30 wins in a season. It was fairly common in the dead ball era of major league baseball for pitchers to win more than 20 and even 30 games in a season. Then came expansion and the proliferation of the relief specialist. Denny McClain won 31 games for the World Series champion Detroit Tigers in 1968 and Steve Carlton came close with the Phillies in the 70s. Since then, it has become more of a rarity to get anyone to 25 wins, let alone 30. Pitchers seldom hurl complete games anymore and that may have as much to do with the small chance of another 30 victory season by any pitcher for some time.
Lifetime home runs. For years, no one thought Babe Ruth's mark of 714 career dingers would be shattered until the consistency of Hank Aaron did it nearly a quarter of a century ago. Aaron's standard of 755 does not seem reachable for either McGwire, who is likely too old, and Sosa, who may not have Aaron's consistency, to do it. Best chance would be Ken Griffey, Jr., but the chances that Griffey would play into his 40's (he would need to keep up his current home run production for at about another decade to catch Aaron) don't seem good. Why play that long when you are earning between $8 and $10 million a year, a salary Aaron barely approached for his lifetime?
Lifetime stolen bases. Ty Cobb's record stood for nearly a half century before Lou Brock broke it. Brock's standard didn't last long before Rickey Henderson shattered it. Henderson is still stealing bases--he will become the oldest ever to lead the league in that category this year--and he keeps adding to the record. Besides, there are few active challengers to Henderson right now. The elimination of astroturf ballparks and the fascination with the home run have made the stolen base as out of style as a Nehru jacket. Henderson's mark seems safe for many years to come.
Single season ERA. Bob Gibson's modern mark of 1.12 seems unapproachable in an era of the long ball, expansion and weak arms. Gibson did it in the last great year for pitchers, 1968, when only one American Leaguer, Carl Yazstremski, hit over .300. There were only 20 major league teams then compared to 30 now and the it was the era of the cookie cutter, convertible ballpark for football and baseball. As good as a Maddux or Pedro Martinez or even Kerry Wood appear to be, allowing just over one earned run every nine innings seems beyond their grasp. Maddux' best year ERA wise would have still left him nearly a half run BEHIND Gibson's mark.