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Launch count

Hot start has ignited Ramirez's pursuit of astronomical milestone - 500 HRs

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / April 29, 2008

He was smiling when he said it.

"I'm mad," Manny Ramírez said as he grabbed his bag and headed for home with the rest of his Red Sox teammates Sunday afternoon in St. Petersburg, Fla. "I told somebody I was going to hit 500 this month. How many [days] I got left?"

That will not be an easy pledge to keep. Ramírez, who has 496 home runs, has two games left in April to become the 24th player in major league history to hit 500 home runs. The Sox, losers of five in a row, open a three-game series tonight at Fenway Park against the Toronto Blue Jays, who just snapped a six-game losing streak of their own with a 5-2 win on getaway day in Kansas City.

Ramírez, who has six home runs this month, has gone seven games and 27 plate appearances since his last home run, a tiebreaking, two-run shot off Joaquin Benoit of the Texas Rangers in the bottom of the eighth inning April 19 to give the Sox a 5-3 win.

The Sox offense has put up big numbers in the season's first month - they're on pace to set a club record for hits for the month (including two games in March) - but hit the skids during Tampa Bay's startling weekend sweep. The Sox, with Sean Casey and David Ortiz joining Mike Lowell among the injured, were held to seven hits over the last two games, just two while being shut out, 3-0, Sunday by James Shields.

Ramírez has hit .360 (9 for 25) in the last week, but has not driven in a run in that span. J.D. Drew, inserted in the No. 3 hole in the lineup with Ortiz absent, has just 4 hits in his last 30 at-bats (38 plate appearances), all singles, and has knocked in just one run. Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, who both briefly led the league in hitting last week, cooled off, Youkilis 1 for his last 17 (a home run) and 0 for 10 against Tampa Bay, and Pedroia 2 for 14 against the Rays.

Lowell, who completed a three-game rehab assignment for Pawtucket Sunday, and Ortiz, who said he felt much better Sunday after bruising his right knee with a head-first slide Friday, should both be back in the lineup tonight. Both worked out at Fenway Park yesterday. And the rest of the Sox should profit from their first day off since April 8, a stretch in which they played 20 games without a break.

But it is Ramírez who has the chance to make history, although that could take a while, according to home run historian David Vincent, who when he isn't researching the long ball serves as official scorer for the Washington Nationals.

Vincent notes that Jimmie Foxx, the Hall of Fame slugger who was the first to hit his 500th home run in a Red Sox uniform, waited 20 days before he hit No. 500 on Sept. 24, 1940. By contrast, Hall of Famer Ted Williams, the other Sox player with 500-plus home runs (521), hit Nos. 499 and 500 on consecutive days, June 16 and 17, 1960. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson is the only member of the 500 club to hit Nos. 499 and 500 in the same game, on Sept. 13, 1971.

Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, and Eddie Murray all took a week or more before hitting their 500th. Sammy Sosa is in a class by himself. He went 187 days between No. 499, which he hit at the end of the 2002 season (Sept. 29), and No. 500, at the beginning of the '03 season (April 4).

Last season, three players - Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome - all hit No. 500, joining Griffey, who is within three home runs of 600, all-time home run leader Barry Bonds, and Sosa, No. 5 on the all-time list, as active players with 500 or more home runs. That was the first time in history that six members of the 500 club were active at the same time.

This season, Bonds is working out at home in Los Angeles, waiting for a team willing take a chance on his scandal-ridden bat, and Sosa is essentially retired in the Dominican Republic. But Ramírez and Gary Sheffield, who is within 19 home runs (481), could make it six again this season.

One of the odder initiations into the club, Vincent notes, was made by Thomas, who hit No. 500 for the Blue Jays last June 28 in the first inning, then was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the ninth inning. "That's the only time that's happened," Vincent said.

Thomas earlier this month was released by the Jays before re-signing with Oakland.

Ramírez went homerless over the weekend in Tropicana Field, where he has hit 25 home runs, a total he has exceeded in just two other visiting parks, Yankee Stadium (28) and Rogers Centre (27). In all, Ramírez has homered in 30 parks, one fewer than Rafael Palmeiro, who had the advantage of playing in both leagues.

Ramírez, Vincent's research indicates, also is just one of four players to hit 200 or more home runs with two different teams, joining Foxx (Athletics and Red Sox), Palmeiro (Rangers and Orioles), and Mark McGwire (Athletics and Cardinals). Griffey begins this week needing just one home run to become the fifth (Mariners and Reds).

If Ramírez is to keep his promise to his friends, the Blue Jays might be the right team to help. Ramirez came into this season with more home runs against the Jays (54) than any other team, although the Yankees, who gave up three to Manny this month, now hold that distinction with 55. And one of Ramirez's two three-homer games came against the Blue Jays, on Sept. 15, 1998, when he was still with the Indians.

When Ramírez draws within a couple of the milestone, Major League Baseball will use authenticated balls for his at-bats. Given today's market for milestone homers, any fan collaring Ramirez's 500th can expect a greater reward than the fan who grabbed Ruth's 500th.

"It was 1929 in Cleveland," Vincent said. "Babe really wanted that ball. He talked to a security guard who went out in the street and found the fan who had it and brought him in.

"Ruth gave the guy 20 bucks and two autographed balls."

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com

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