One of my baptismal moments as a baseball fan came when I was about 9 or so, and I had a new baseball card that was one of those historical tributes, this one to Walter Johnson. Riding in the back of our '76 Plymouth van, I quizzed my dad on how many career strikeouts the Big Train had, thinking there was no way he would get the exact four-digit number. When Dad said "3,509," I was flabbergasted. How could he possibly have known?
Soon enough, I learned the joy of losing myself in baseball's career stat leaders. In that long-before-the-Internet era, you would pore over the Baseball Encyclopedia or the Street and Smith's annual preview. We never saw Johnson or Ty Cobb play, but through those numbers (which later proved to be subject to correction by baseball researchers), they began to gain a purpose. They began to gain an identity.
Things change. Johnson, who was No. 1 in career strikeouts when I was a boy (in fact, was the tops from 1921 through 1983), is No. 9 today. Steve Carlton passed him first, then Nolan Ryan leapfrogged Carlton and obliterated the mark, finishing with 5,714. Besides Johnson, just one pre-World War II pitcher is left in the top 20. That's Cy Young, resting in 20th place with 2,803.
With marriage and three children, I'm forced to live much more in the present than maybe I'd like to, especially from a baseball standpoint. It's been years since I've luxuriated in the career tables like I did in the past -- one of life's simple pleasures lost to a much more complex existence. And so when I turned my attention to the career strikeout leaders today, it didn't surprise me much that so much change had occurred.
But when I looked over at the career hit leaders, I was taken aback -- by the utter stability of it all. It was as if it were frozen in time, but the truth is, that top-10 list is a boulder that would not be moved.
It was just as I left it as a single man. The most recent player to break into the top 10 was Paul Molitor, whose major league career began before my 11th birthday and ended back in 1998. Carl Yastrzemski was the only other top-10er to play into my teen years.
I mean, I don't know what I was expecting -- and those of you with healthier attention spans will think me a fool for being the least bit surprised, so forgive me -- but how wonderful, how glorious, how … viscerally energizing it was to see these names hold up over time. Rose and Cobb and their angry, cantankerous 4,000-plus hit careers. The classy Hammerin' Hank and Stan the Man holding strong in third and fourth. The classic old-timers -- Speaker, Cap Anson, Honus Wagner -- in the meat of the lineup at 5-7. At eight and nine, Yaz and Molitor, young whippersnappers even as they court the AARP demographic.
And then … this was my favorite. No. 10, with 3,315 hits: Eddie Collins. To my utter shame, I haven't given Eddie Collins a nanosecond of thought in years. My mind has been too polluted by extraneous, worthless details like work and family to give Collins the time of day -- and yet there he sits, steady as granite. Mays couldn't catch him. Murray and Ripken couldn't catch him. Yount and Gwynn, Winfield and Biggio, Henderson and Carew, Brock and Palmeiro and Boggs … all playing in the 162-game era, many with the designated hitter rule in their right pocket, and none could touch Collins, born in 1887, christened in 1906, retired by 1930. When he passed away in 1951, he was fifth all-time in hits. Sixty years later, he's lost only five spots.
Soon, Collins might finally face his top-10 eviction notice. Derek Jeter has 2,926 career hits, more than any ballplayer at age 36 since Yount, two decades ago. By July, Jeter will probably break 3,000 and (with all the subtle media coverage of a moon landing) become the 28th man to reach that milestone, leaving him perhaps no more than two years away from Collins. Behind Jeter looms Alex Rodriguez, barely 600 hits from Collins and Molitor at age 34.
After that? Maybe 36-year-old Ichiro Suzuki has more than 1,000 hits left in him to catch Yastrzemski. Quite possibly, 30-year-old Albert Pujols , who has 1,900 hits in his first decade, picks up close to the same in his second, knocking out Wagner.
And so maybe that stability on the all-time hits list is headed by the wayside. Hours ago, I wouldn't have known what I missed. But now I wonder … I miss Walter Johnson in that No. 1 spot. Is it that crazy that I might miss Eddie Collins at No. 10?
If it is, all I can say is that's the same kind of crazy that made me the baseball fan I am today.