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The View from Left Field
Home Run Heresy
By Chris Christensen
Baseball may still be my religion, the ballpark my temple, and the game's literary canon my scripture, but when it comes to worshipping at the Holy Alter of the Home Run, I remain an unrepentant heretic. As such, I fear for the rationality of the game's gurusRoger Angell, Jon Miller, Bob Costasgushing like geysers over the Season of the Long Ball. We are told by an insistent media that 1998 was the greatest baseball season ever. Indeed, Sports Illustrated anointed it the greatest year in all sports history, largely because of the home run. Fans alienated from the sport by the 1994 strike are returning in droves, we are told.
Yet, there's a bit of a stench about the whole thing. Baseball may have received a short-term shot in the arm, but over the long run, this fanaticism for the four-bagger may hurt the game's integrity and mar its aesthetics. (Saying nothing of how the hoopla hides serious revenue inequities.)
Now, I'm not saying that Mark McGwire isn't a hell of a nice guy. And Sammy Sosa? A prince. My questioning of homer mania goes beyond the personal. I'm also fully aware that my concerns about the plethora of homers in the 1990s is an echo of an ancient chorus of complaints that greeted the rise of Babe Ruth in the 1920s. In those days, Ty Cobb, John McGraw, and other dead-ball practitioners of "scientific baseball" predicted the ruin of the game. They were wrong, of course. Ruth merely introduced a new weapon that eventually blended into the game's offensive arsenal. The difference now is the danger posed by the home run's dominance. I can remember the precise moment it hit me like a Carl Mays fastball: the evening of July 22, 1994. I was watching the Indians and the White Sox. Five home runs had already flown out of Jacobs Fieldand it was only the second inning!
Nineteen ninety-four was a harbinger season. Scheduled to be the debut of the wild card teams, it also announced in dramatic fashion the coming of the home run. By early August, no fewer than six playersKen Griffey, Jr., Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, Matt Williams, Jeff Bagwell, and Barry Bondswere poised to launch an all-out assault on Ruth and Maris. (From their graves the two old Yankees must have been looking over their shoulders for Joey Cora!) Then the strike wiped out the season. But it only delayed the inevitable.
As the nineties progressed, the homer returned with a vengeance. I want to stress here that I have absolutely nothing against the home run. I merely argue that it ought to be relatively rare. It should blend with more intricate means of scoring: the hit and run, the squeeze bunt, the steal, the coaxed walk, the double into the gap, the triple into the corner, all of which are in danger of being overshadowed by the homer.
Lost in the dust of the big blast is the nuance of the game. Consider the fundamental unit of scoringthe runand imagine the means of moving a player around the bases back to home: how each option changes according to the variables, from pitch count to how many out, from who's up to who's up next, from who's on the mound to who's on base. Keith Hernandez, in Pure Baseball, devotes five pages to such intricaciessolely involving the hit and run.
When a good majority of runs are wrought by skillful execution, the game retains its intellectual and aesthetic appeal. Only then does the home run deliver its appealthe potential for heart-stopping drama. If, on the other hand, the basic unit of scoringthe runis cheapened by the relative ease of hitting home runs, the game degenerates into a simple contest of strength, a daily home run derby, and, paradoxically, the dramatic impact of the home run is lost. Have we reached that point? Is the game out of balance? For me, the answer is yes.
In 1930 an average of 1.27 home runs were hit per game; in 1940, 1.28. In 1950 the average rose significantly to 1.68. It held in this neighborhood until 1994 (19601.73; 19701.76; 19801.47; 19901.57; 19911.61; 19921.44; 19931.78). In that strike year, it smashed the two-homer-per-game barrier (2.11), fell to 1.80 in 1995, and rose again to 2.05 in 1997 and 2.08 in 1998. Before the 1990s, hitting forty to forty-five home runs was enough to win the title. Lately, it seems that everybody is doing it.
A more dramatic indication of the homer's dominance is the frequency of breaking the fifty-homers-in-a-season barrier. In the 1930s, it was reached three times (Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg); in the forties, also three times (Ralph Kiner twice, Johnny Mize); only two players broke the barrier in the fifties (Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle); in the sixties, three times (Roger Maris, Mantle, Mays); in the seventies only once (George Foster); and no one hit fifty or more homers in a season in the eighties.
In the six decades before the 1990s, the fifty-homer mark was reached an average of twice a decade. In the nineties (with this season still to finish), the barrier has been busted no less than ten times (Cecil Fielder, Brady Anderson, Greg Vaughn, Sammy Sosa, Albert Belle, Ken Griffey, Jr., twice, and Mark McGwire three times). Had there been no strike in 1994, the mark might very well have been smashed by six playersin one season. Matt Williams had forty-three in early August, with five sluggers on his heels. Assuming two do it this seasona conservative guessplus half of the hypothetical six in 1994, that would make fifteen in the decade of the nineties, or three more than the preceding six decades combined.
All this may not bother those fans who derive their baseball enjoyment from watching balls fly out of stadiums. But beware the law of diminishing returns; soon even those fans will be jaded as the home run loses its claim to legitimacy. Already, the accomplishments of 1998 seem a bit tainted. The feat of Roger Maris in 1961 is more meaningfulhitting his sixty-first on the last day of the season after an exhausting struggle. It united Maris and Ruth in history. In its obliteration of Ruth and Maris, McGwire's mark seems suspect, coming as it did with relative ease in a decade of the cheap home run. That magic number, seventylike Ruth's sixty and Maris's sixty-onemust now stand for thirty, forty, or even fifty years in order to truly attain legendary proportion. If broken soon, or even approached with regularity, it will lose its authenticity. The truly legendary comes about only through the passage of time.
Even before last season ended, a disturbing phenomenon developed. Throughout his career, McGwire often has not taken batting practice before games. Last year, when it became apparent that he would threaten the record, certain fans would boo when he chose to skip BP. They came to the ballpark not for the game, but to watch McGwire hit home runsbefore the game! After his last at bat, they walked out.
I've never been much interested in the debate over the reasons for the epidemic of home runs. Whether it's expansion, bad pitching, hot weather, smaller parks, strength conditioning, or a juiced ball is irrelevant. The point is to do something. Sparky Anderson, bless his horsehide soul, is the only baseball person in the nineties that I know of who has touched on this. "Do they want this?" he asks. "If they do, well . . . then don't do nothing. If they don't want it, then maybe they better do somethingraise the mound or call the high strike."
The authorities have instructed the umpires to call a higher strike. Fine. I'm all for raising the mound, if that would help. As far as I'm concerned, they can even deaden the ball, just enough to make hitting forty to forty-five homers a year take the title and mean something. I don't care what they do; I just want them to, in Sparky's words, "do something."
Perhaps then baseball can restore its elegant symmetry and appeal to all of us, young and old. It's a game, after all, that has something for everyone: the excitement of the long ball and the satisfaction of the well-turned double play, the awe of a perfect throw from deep in the right field corner, and the perfectly executed suicide squeeze.
CHRIS CHRISTENSEN grew up in Marion, Iowa. He spent four years in the
Air Force after high school, then earned a degree in political science at
Southern Connecticut before spending two years in the Peace Corps. He now
lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Elysian Fields
© 1999 Michael Rogner
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