Collecting 3,000 hits in a career is a milestone rarely achieved. Think about it: Averaging 150 hits during a 20-season career, or getting 200 hits during each of 15 seasons, is a marvelous feat of sheer consistency. When the regular season consisted of 154 games -- it was even tougher. A select group headed by that ferocious baseball immortal, Tyrus Raymond Cobb (4,191 hits) and followed by Tris Speaker (3,515), Honus Wagner (3,430) Eddie Collins (3,309), Nap Lajoie (3,252), Paul Waner (3,152), and Cap Anson (3,081) were the only players to amass 3,000 hits before the advent of the 162-game regular season. The great Stan Musial (3,630) and Willie Mays (3,283) joined the ranks of elite batsmen shortly thereafter, as did Roberto Clemente (3,000), Carl Yastrzemski (3,419), Hank Aaron (3,771), Lou Brock (3,023), and Al Kaline (3,007). Since then, the prestigious club has grown to 21 members, adding such illustrious names as the all-time leader Pete Rose (4,256) and perennial A.L. batting champ Rod Carew (3,053) during the 1980s, and finally the still-active Paul Molitor (3,319 hits following the 1998 season), Eddie Murray (3,255), Dave Winfield (3,110), George Brett (3,154) and Robin Yount (3,142) so far during the 1990s.

For hobbyists, the cards of most 3,000-hit-club members command pricey tags -- even those of the ostracized Pete Rose (banned from baseball for life) -- because a rather singular achievement is a big part of their allure.

While one can rhapsody forever about great players who never achieved the coveted plateau -- Hall of Famers Sam Rice (2,987) and Sam Crawford (2,964) were the nearest misses, but legends like Ted Williams (2,654) and Joe DiMaggio (2,214) ended up considerably down the list -- who among active players STILL HAS A CHANCE to make the elusive 3,000? More pointedly, who'll be next to join this storied fraternity?

With the 1999 season upon us, the closest candidate is Padre stalwart Tony Gwynn with 2,928 hits -- a cinch to make it sometime this summer even if he's relegated to part-time duty. Bet on his card values to shoot up more than slightly when he does. Wade Boggs (2,922) is close behind, and should also achieve the milestone during the current season.

The next best bet is 38-year-old Cal Ripken, Jr. While he shows diminishing range as a third baseman and last year drove in a career-low 61 runs, barring injury, he should easily get enough playing time to collect the last 122 hits toward 3,000 -- at least by September.

The likelihood of anybody else on the near-horizon arriving at the coveted plateau is more dicey. While New York Mets' outfielder Rickey Henderson did appear in over 130 games last year, he's only amassed 2,678 hits. To garner another 322 will require at least two full seasons, when Henderson will be age 42. Then there's always Harold Baines. With 2,649 hits already, he does have an outside chance, but unlike Henderson, he's playing less and less these days. For Baines, that 3,000-hit plateau might prove just a little too elusive.