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Jewish World Review May 8, 2000 / 3 Iyar, 5760

George Will

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Home-Run Glut --       "Too much of a good thing is wonderful." -- Mae West      

NOT NECESSARILY, as Major League Baseball is learning from its current glut of home runs. Baseball lightning is becoming as common, and about as exciting, as lightning bugs. And this time the glut cannot be explained by the Happy Haitians Theory.

In 1987, when home runs were unusually frequent, Tony Kubek, a former player turned broadcaster, probably was kidding (with baseball people, you never know) when he said: The baseballs are made in Haiti, and Haitians, exuberant about the downfall of the Duvalier regime, are winding the yarn inside the balls extra tight, and pulling the laces on the balls' covers so tight the laces are almost flush with the surface, making it difficult for pitchers to get a good grip, and causing balls to have less wind resistance and pitches less movement.

But baseballs have been manufactured by placid Costa Ricans for more than 10 years. So we need another explanation of this:

More home runs (931) were hit in April than in any other April in baseball history. And more in one day (57) and week (262) than ever before. For the first time ever, both teams in a game hit three consecutive home runs. At today's pace, there would be 6,254 home runs this season, breaking the record of 5,528 set last season. In April, 22 players hit eight or more, putting them on a pace to hit 48 or more this season. (Only twice, 1998 and 1996, have even five hit 48 or more.) Between 1960 and 1989, only four players hit 50 or more home runs. Between 1990 and 1999, 10 did. Through Wednesday's games, players have hit two or more in 66 games, including three players who have hit three. At this pace, there will be 397 multiple home-run games this season. The season record is 362, set last year. In 1991 only one team topped 200 home runs; in 1999, 10 did.

Writing in ESPN The Magazine, Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, official keeper of Major League Baseball's statistics, says, "Like a father of triplets thinking back to that romantic cruise along the Riviera, we can easily identify the moment of conception: Opening Day 1994 at Wrigley Field." Tuffy Rhodes, who then had five homers in his career, hit three. Thus began the first of six consecutive seasons in which the home-run rate exceeded two per game. Before 1994, there had been only one.

Although Rawlings, the manufacturer, denies changing the ball, some people suspect conspiracy. But there are other explanations. In the intimate new ballparks, outfield fences are closer. And foul territory is smaller, so more batters get to keep swinging after hitting a pop foul. Players are bigger. (What is your collar size? Fifteen inches? Sixteen? Mark McGwire's forearms are 17 1/2 inches around.) Expansion has diluted pitching. (Every time two teams are added--10 have been added since 1969--at least 22 major league arms must be found.) And one of the many curses of the designated hitter rule is that many fine athletes do not want to be pitchers because they want to bat.

No umpire, not one, consistently calls the strike zone as the rule book defines it. De jure, the top of the zone is "the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants"; de facto, it is at the belt. Many batters wear armor on the arm closest to the pitcher so they can crowd the plate, taking the outside corner away from the pitcher. And if the pitcher throws inside to drive the batter back, the batter, being a modern man, sensitive and vulnerable and all that, throws a tantrum.

Today's ballparks will not get bigger, but position players will. Batters bulk up all year round; pitchers, with entirely different bodily stresses and skills, cannot. So what is to be done?

Raise the pitcher's mound from 10 inches back to the 15 it was until 1969. Do not punish pitchers who hit batters when just trying to drive them back. And if veteran players can tell--and some say they can--by squeezing, a 1990 ball from a 2000 ball, soften it a bit. And fire the next umpire who speaks of "my strike zone."

Otherwise baseball, so rich in subtleties, may become just a game of batters swinging from their heels. Long ago, the owner of Washington's hapless Senators, Clark Griffith, said: "Fans like home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff to please our fans." Home runs are good things, but too much of a good thing (except perhaps of what Mae West probably had in mind) is boring.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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