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Home-Run Inflation

July 20, 2000

Sports Illustrated confirms my worst suspicions: the home run has transformed major league baseball. The frequency of homers is at an all-time high. Everyone is swinging for the fences. Pitching duels have been replaced by sloppy slugfests. “Baseball has never been more popular,” writes Tom Verducci, “nor has it ever been more one-dimensional.”

It’s not just that a lot more homers are being hit nowadays; they are being hit by players who have no business hitting them. One symptom: in 1992, the year before recent expansion teams were added, Verducci notes that 37 players hit 20 or more home runs over the entire season; this year, 37 players had hit 20 homers by the All-Star break. Furthermore, as Verducci observes: “Number-7 hitters in American League lineups in 1998 put up power and on-base numbers that were nearly identical to cleanup hitters from ’68.”

[Breaker quote: 
A one-dimensional game]Power is replacing finesse. The game is obsessed with the long ball, and other factors are being muscled out. Striking out has ceased to be an embarrassment; last year 71 players struck out more than 100 times, “a mark of dishonor only a decade ago,” as Verducci puts it. This year Preston Wilson of the Florida Marlins is on pace to strike out 215 times, smashing Bobby Bonds’s unenviable 1970 mark of 189 times. (Happily, Bobby’s son Barry is a power hitter who is tough to fan, with nearly as many homers — 30 — as strikeouts: 38.) Pitchers report that hitters no longer protect the plate with two strikes. If they can’t go deep, they’re content to go down swinging.

Expansion has thinned pitching talent, umpires ignore the rule book and shrink the strike zone, and the ball is wound tighter. The result is that the home run — and the game — has been cheapened.

Homers do have a vulgar appeal; people who know nothing about baseball are thrilled by the long ball. But the balance of nature has been upset. Hitting 40 homers used to be a real achievement, something even the greatest sluggers, except for Babe Ruth, didn’t consistently do. Now even infielders are doing it. Ruth used to hold the career record for strikeouts as well as for homers, but he never fanned 100 times in a season.

Ty Cobb, the greatest player before the long-ball era, thought Ruth and the home run had coarsened the game he loved, a game in which you scrapped for every run with bunts, steals, sacrifices, hit-and-run. But the sport soon stabilized, and the home run remained exceptional enough to be exciting. Ruth’s season’s record of 60 homers stood from 1927 to 1961, also an expansion year, when Roger Maris hit 61. Now even Mark McGwire’s new record of 70 isn’t safe; but how much will it really mean when someone breaks it?

I have a personal stake in this. I’ve taught my grandson Joe, almost from infancy, to ignore the long ball and strive for contact; no strikeouts, please. This year, at age 13, Joe led his league with a .510 average, striking out only once. He hit lots of doubles and a few triples — but no home runs. Have I raised an anachronism? Have I blighted his future by failing to encourage him to take steroids and swing from the heels on every pitch?

Joe’s game is Cobb’s kind of baseball (his hero is Barry Larkin). He loves to pitch, catch, play infield, turn the double play, steal bases, make the heads-up play. A few weeks ago, playing catcher, he dashed to third base in his bulky gear, beat the runner coming from second, took the throw, and made the tag, having seen in a flash that nobody was covering the base. Alert and swift, he’d sized up the situation and acted before the spectators realized what was happening. The crowd was electrified: it was more thrilling than a home run. I hate to think all Joe’s skills will be wasted in a game ruled by sheer brute force, rendered as irrelevant as chivalry in the nuclear era.

This weekend his all-star team will play for the state championship. Joe may not hit one over the fence, but I know he’ll make me proud. He always does.

Joseph Sobran

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