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Let’s All Get Back in the Swing

Is the home run, like the Great Plains bison, an obsolete American species, an artifact? Is it endangered, destined to exist only in cave drawings?

In 1921, after the Black Sox scandal, the home run, as delivered by Babe Ruth, saved baseball. It, and he, also revolutionized the game.

The purists never forgave either of them.

Before Ruth and the home run, the game was a swift, crafty, heady game, a scientific pursuit, part chess, part chicanery, the cats vs. the mice. The ball was little more than an exaggerated beanbag and the game was a set-piece battle of strategy where artful placing of the ball and daring base-running was paramount and determined the outcome.

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Ruth changed all that. He made the game over in his image. It became a long-range artillery duel. Speed, deceit, cunning were all ruled, not to say blasted, out of existence.

The era of the long ball, the big inning, came in. The game became an exercise in brute force. The small skills all but disappeared. The arts of base-stealing and base-running died out.

You could win a league championship with 19 or fewer steals. What sense was there risking an out when you could just stand there and let anyone of the next eight guys in the lineup knock you in with a home run?

Good fielding became secondary. Not even Willie Mays could catch a home run.

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That style of play--Yankee baseball--prevailed for decades. The Yankees won an annual World Series without ever getting their uniforms dirty. They drafted for power, not finesse.

Michael Jack Schmidt, of the Philadelphia Schmidts, who may be the last of the big swingers, the final Ruthian gasp, thinks that the pendulum has swung clear back the other way in this Year of Our Lord 1986. The game has come full circle.

The home run is on its way out, or at least is in full retreat. Not only are the 50-homers-a-year hitters disappearing, so are the 40-a-year. Next, maybe, will go the 30-a-year.

“Look at your World Series last year,” Schmidt suggests. “You had two teams in there for whom the home run was almost nonexistent. I think the Cardinals had only 80 home runs, not counting the inside-the-park ones. They stole 314 bases. You think the 1927 Yankees stole 314 bases? In their entire existence?”

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Even architecture has conspired against the power game, Schmidt argues. The new symmetrical ballparks no longer have any Green Monsters, inviting left- or right-field targets like the 315-footer in Boston.

The parks today are a nice, dull, uniform distance away from home plate to eliminate the cheap home run. To eliminate any home run. The power alleys all resemble Yankee Stadium’s Death Valley. They rob the game of suspense, argues Mike. A four-run lead at Fenway Park in Boston is nothing. A four-run lead at Busch Stadium in St. Louis is the end of the game.

Artificial surfaces have sounded the retreat for the home run game, too. “The stolen base is overrated as an offensive weapon,” Schmidt says. “But the managers love those guys who can run.”

For one thing, it gives them something to do. In Ruth’s day, a manager’s chief cerebration consisted of handing a bat to a cleanup hitter and saying: “Go hit a three-run homer.”

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Today, he has more signs than an Indy race car. Teams have signs for signs in the dugouts these days. It’s not likely Babe Ruth even knew what the team’s steal sign was. It’s not likely they had one.

The surfaces have made it possible for fleet outfielders to cut off hits that once would have sailed through the gaps for extra-base hits, which is another incentive for clubs to draft for speed rather than power.

All sports are imitative and baseball no less so. In football, if a split-T or a wishbone works for one team, all adopt it.

In baseball, when the Yanks won with power, every team went looking for 6-3, 240-pound behemoths with bulging stomachs and 50-ounce bats. But when the game went to the big round ballparks and teams began to win with the small skills--base-stealing, running, fielding--the rest of the game went to that.

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Relief pitching also worked against the big-inning theory of attack.

Says Schmidt: “It used to be you had a pitcher who had a good, live fastball your first two or three times up but he would lose a little in the late innings and you could get to him, take him out of the park.”

Now, they take him out of the game.

“You get some young strongarm coming in there. Look at the Dodgers. You got a pen full of guys throwing 92 m.p.h. in the late innings.”

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Is the new way any surer route to a pennant? To a dynasty? Is the quest for swift, punch-hitter types of ballplayers a smarter way to the top?

Schmidt’s own career would argue against that.

When Mike came up, the Phillies were a spectacularly unsuccessful franchise who had won only two pennants in 73 years. Since Schmidt joined them, they have won five division championships, two pennants and their first World Series.

When Mike came up to the club in 1973, he was batting an anemic .196 for the season. He tried to steal eight times and was caught stealing two of those times. He struck out 136 times, more than once a game and almost once out of every two times at bat.

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Managers today would replace that kind with a rabbit by Mother’s Day. But Danny Ozark persevered with Schmidt because he also hit 18 home runs in that stretch--one out of every four of his hits was a homer. He may be the only .196 batter in history to hit 18 home runs--to get a chance to hit home runs.

Mike is the best argument in the world for a return to the old ways. The Phils’ patience has paid off in pennants and playoffs. And some time this year, Mike Schmidt may hit his 500th home run.

It may be time to take the game out of its hit-and-run stance and back to its hit-and-wait.

The home run is as American as the Tin Lizzie or the Spirit of St. Louis but it doesn’t deserve to hang in a museum just yet. Contrary to a large body of opinion, it still wins ball games and pennants.

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Ask the Dodgers.


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