Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you catch a foul ball this season at the ol’ ballpark. Let’s say you take it home and toss it in the back yard. Would it, for instance, start eating the grass?
And if it did; if, one night, you peeked out and thought you saw little pink eyes peering back at you, would that be entirely bad? Is a bit of rabbit blood, a little transfusion of the hare, necessarily an awful thing in baseball once every generation or so?
Great fear is afoot in the land. Right-thinking baseball fans (that’s to say all citizens of the republic) wish to know whether the remarkable feats of sluggerduggery that are being performed daily in cities coast to coast are entirely legitimate deeds and worthy of our wholehearted applause.
When Luis Aguayo hits two home runs in one game; when Greg Gross, who had forgotten to hit a home run since 1978, suddenly remembers how to dial long distance, shouldn’t we send the ball bag in for a complete physical?
Perhaps Gene Mauch, who never met a bunt he didn’t like, spoke for purists when he fumed (after watching Baltimore hit six home runs off his Angels in one game), “Baseball’s getting ridiculous.”
Impurity has its pleasures. Something must be terribly wrong with me. I like home runs.
If, by October, Eric Davis has 62 homers, or Mike Schmidt 55 or Mark McGwire 50, or if the Baltimore Orioles have 250 as a team, would baseball survive?
Open any paper or magazine, and the charts march at you, showing the unprecedented home-run pace in each major league. By golly, gophergate.
What’s the matter? Aren’t home runs about the biggest fun in sports? Have we forgotten how to have a good time? Is baseball so serious that we can’t enjoy a juiced-up ball? Babe Ruth’s dead. His feelings won’t be hurt. Can we stop worrying, please?
Every once in a great while, the stars are properly aligned, or the ball is more tightly wound, or the strike zone gets changed, or the pitchers are sufficiently horrendous, and a perverse season comes along when everybody and his dog hits home runs.
The last undeniable rocket-ball sighting came in 1961. (Expansion also diluted pitching). This was the home run list: Roger Maris (61), Mickey Mantle (54), Jim Gentile, Harmon Killebrew and Orlando Cepeda (46), Rocky Colavito (45), Norm Cash (41) and Willie Mays (40). That year, the Yankees had 240.
Of course, 1969 wasn’t such a shabby year, either. The lowered strike zone helped, too: Killebrew (49), Frank Howard (48), Reggie Jackson (47), Willie McCovey (45), Hank Aaron (44), Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petrocelli (40).
Before we get hot and bothered, before we denigrate the accomplishment of our current generation of sluggers, it might be wise to remember that most great batting feats have occurred in seasons when conditions were, shall we say, propitious.
When Hank Greenberg hit 58 homers in 1938, he wasn’t even the best slugger in the league. Jimmie Foxx had 50 homers and 175 RBIs. Back in 1930, when Hack Wilson had 56 homers and 190 RBIs, Bill Terry hit .401 and Chuck Klein had 170 RBIs. The entire National League batted .303 that year. Think those balls didn’t multiply in the bag?
Some of us--philistines, no doubt--rather fancy such seasons as 1954, when six players in one league cracked the 40-homer barrier (Ted Kluszewski, Gil Hodges, George Sauer, Mays, Eddie Mathews and Duke Snider).
The era is long since past when a home-run record will be set in the imperial manner of Ruth who, in 1927, finished 42 home runs ahead of the third-best man in the American League. Now we only see great deeds done in concert. So why not accept it?
All the current theories for the home-run explosion seem to hold some water. Weight lifting, especially over the last decade or so, sure hasn’t made batters weaker. It’s also indisputable that home runs have increased as strikeouts have increased; more players have decided that it’s productive to swing harder more often.
Finally, a new generation of stars has emerged in the last four years and, whereas the most impressive of them are Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden, the largest segment is made up of exceptional hitters, sluggers such as Davis, McGwire, George Bell, Joe Carter, Pete Incaviglia, Jose Canseco, Wally Joyner, Kirby Puckett, Don Mattingly, Rob Deer, Glenn Davis and a dozen more.
Even granting all this, however, it’s interesting that since Peter Ueberroth, the master of market research, became commissioner, the home run--the best ticket seller ever--has become omnipresent. Since 1985 (his first year), annual homer totals have gone straight up the graph.
Lively ball debates traditionally have ended as just that--debates that are never completely settled, even after the data settles. So let’s relax. Early season paces usually evaporate. Davis probably will need all of our good wishes even to reach 50. But if he should somehow amaze us with 62, would his name be any more out of place at the pinnacle than Maris’?
All good things can be overdone. The time may come for a grand-jury probe of the Rawlings factory. However, for the rest of 1987, let’s hold the bat down on the nob and swing from the heels. As for any puritanic worries that we might be enjoying ourselves too much--hey, let’s just agree for one long-ball summer that they’re going, going, gone.