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Some big names near milestones

Reggie Jackson was joking. Sort of.

"Too many players are hitting 500 home runs," he said, rolling his eyes. "I'm lucky, I've got a big ego. It doesn't devalue what I did."

Relax, Reggie, your place in history is safe. But your spot on the career homer list might change because the 500 club is about to get a lot more crowded.

Sammy Sosa could make it with his next swing. Rafael Palmeiro is on deck, while Fred McGriff and Ken Griffey Jr. are well within range this season.

Never before has baseball seen such a stampede on the hallowed mark. Then again, it all makes sense to Roger Clemens.

"It's just a different game," The Rocket said. "There are some big dudes. It's dangerous out there."

Clemens has his own big number to shoot for, too. The New York Yankees' ace needs seven wins to reach No. 300.

Added up, it's a major year for milestones.

Sosa heads into opening day at Shea Stadium with 499 home runs. At 34, and averaging 58 home runs in the last five seasons, there's no telling how high the Chicago Cubs' slugger will get.

"Some number is going to come up. I don't know how many, but some number will be there," he said.

Right now, only 17 players have hit at least 500 home runs. Twice before, two guys have hit the historic homer in the same season — Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews in 1967, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson in 1971.

In the next few months, though, that special mark might start looking rather routine. Palmeiro begins the season with 490 homers, followed by McGriff at 478 and Griffey at 468.

Asked about the sudden influx of sluggers, Robinson waved his hand.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said. "A lot has changed in baseball."

Smaller parks, watered-down pitching, they're all factors in this era of increased offense.

So are built-up ballplayers, be it through weights or other more shady methods.

"Yeah, it bothers me," said Jackson, who ranks eighth all-time with 563 home runs. "But I can't do anything about it."

Fact is, until Willie Mays hit his 500th homer in 1965, only four players had made it that far.

"When I came in, Mel Ott was at 511," Mays said. "I came in in 1951 and then passed him. It was nothing bad. As a player you just go as far as you can."

Mike Schmidt finished at 548 and knows he might've hit many more these days.

"But it's not the players' fault. They didn't build the ballparks or wind the ball tighter," the former Philadelphia star said. "But the bar has definitely been raised."

"Not to take anything away from guys now when they hit 500. But if you're a Hall of Fame voter, maybe you have to look at 600 as the new number."

Maybe that's why no one on the brink is making an ultra-big deal about it.

"It's nice. I'm not going to say it's not," Sosa said. "I'm not satisfied with that because I know my numbers are not going to stop there. I've got to move on."

Griffey was flinging a Frisbee around the Cincinnati clubhouse when the subject came up.

"I never really thought about it," the 33-year-old Reds star said. "All I ever wanted to do was be like my dad. He was a line-drive hitter. He would always say that if you got your hits, the home runs would come."

Palmeiro has piled up impressive power stats though he's never hit more than 47 homers in a season. Of course, Hank Aaron never hit more than 47 in a year, either, and he finished with a record 755.

"The only thing I know for sure is that everybody who has 500 home runs is in the Hall of Fame," the 38-year-old Texas star said.

Growing up, McGriff said, he was more aware of Aaron's mark than the one he's close to hitting. The Los Angeles first baseman has done it despite a career high of 37 homers in a season.

"To me, 500 is more or less just a number. I mean, it sounds better than 490," he said. "Someday, I'll look back at it, but not now."

By then, the standard may be even higher. Barry Bonds is at 613 and on pace to pass godfather Mays (660) and get a lot closer to Babe Ruth (714). And still off in the distance is the player who could top them all. At 27, Alex Rodriguez already is up to 298.

"He could hit 1,000," Jackson said. "But part of the greatness of getting to 500 is endurance. That's not easy."

Clemens, at 40, is still cranking away as he tries to become the first pitcher to post his 300th win since Nolan Ryan in 1990.

Overall, 20 pitchers have won 300. With five-man rotations and the reliance on relief pitchers, there may not be many more after Clemens, with Greg Maddux (273), Tom Glavine (242) and Randy Johnson (224) next in line.

Be it hitting or pitching, Clemens knows it's hard to keep going.

"Remember when everyone thought Griffey was going to set the home-run record? He's kind of tailed off," Clemens said. "It's not easy."