Call It MTV Ball, Instant Gratification or Eye Candy, the Long Ball Revives Game

Baseball's back, the die-hards and the true believers exult as the home runs explode overhead to the delight of the frenzied masses below, but all of them are only half right.

Baseballs are back, back, back . . . and halfway up the tarpaulin draped over the upper-deck bleachers in center field. Or bouncing off the giant cola bottle far beyond the left-field wall. They are shooting over fences and out of parks faster and farther than ever before, and America sits at home transfixed, pining for its latest long-ball bulletin the same way it waits for a hoagie at the corner delicatessen.

Sosa! Fifty-seven!

McGwire! Fifty-nine!

McGwire! Again! Sixty!

Sosa! Fifty-eight!

Take a number, please. The wait for the next one shouldn't be long. And in the meantime, here's the slow-motion reverse angle on that last launch by Mark McGwire and here's what Sammy Sosa has to say about it and here's what the going price for that souvenir baseball is and here's a documentary retrospective on the life and times of Hack Wilson, followed by interviews with the men who hit behind McGwire and Sosa in the lineup, the men who might pitch to McGwire and Sosa with No. 62 on the line, and the men who might make the historic broadcast call when McGwire and/or Sosa reaches climactic No. 62, which should be any minute now.

Meet the new national pastime. Not the same as the old national pastime, not the way your father and your grandfather remember it.

In 1958, the country's obsession was with the game of baseball.

In 1998, the country's obsession is with the game of baseball, only leaner and cleaner, stripped of all needless outdated bygone clutter.

Such as pitching, fielding, base stealing, bunting, singles hitting and managerial strategy.

Hooked on Home Run Derby. That is our passion late in the summer of '98. Gopher fever. Just put the ball over the plate and let's see how far we can send it. Give it a ride. Go deep. Go yard. Go after Roger Maris and pound that record into submission beyond recognition.

"Wherever I go," Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully says, "that's all people are talking about now."

That's a substantial improvement for a sport usually in retreat mode this time of year, shunted to the side to make room for a new NFL season. It has been that way in particular since the 1994 strike, which not only vaporized a World Series but also the once-unbreakable bond millions of Americans had with baseball.

So it is something to see and hear--prime-time television programs interrupting for home-run updates, radio talk shows cutting away for live play-by-play every time McGwire or Sosa step to the plate, office workers huddling around a TV upon hearing the periodic "Hey, everybody! McGwire's up!"

Even if it is baseball consumed by the eye-dropper. A few seconds of videotape here, a sound bite there, a 3 1/2-hour production condensed to three or four swings from the heels and everyone-go-back-to-what-you-were-doing-before.

David Vincent, a home run researcher for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), calls it baseball "for the MTV generation with the five-second attention span."

Philip Lucas, a professor of history at Cornell College in Iowa, describes it as "instant gratification . . . It appeals to the casual viewer and the kid who's being taken to a game for the first time."

It is eye candy, easy to digest and uncomplicated. How many bodies that pass through the turnstiles on any given night can recite the infield fly rule or truly appreciate a well-executed hit-and-run? But the home run is Baseball 101. Grab a bat and try to hit the ball as far as you can. The concept is as basic and as primal as this game fabled for its nuanced subtlety ever gets.

"It's the ultimate swat," Vincent says. "People are going nuts right now over the concept of how far these guys are hitting the ball. It's the same reason people buy cars that go fast. Or why people tend to like offense more than defense.

"Most people would rather see a baseball game with 10 runs than one run. Why did that Yankee PR guy go out and try to measure Mickey Mantle's home run? Because you're thinking, 'Man, did that one go a long way!' That kind of brain process pops up everywhere."

No other act in American sport captivates and fascinates the way the home run does.

The dunk in basketball? Too many of them every game. Dime a dozen.

The long slap shot in hockey? Too hard to see if you're watching on TV. Even if you're rink-side, blink at the wrong instant and all you get is a flashing red light.

The bomb in football? Comparable, though it lacks the sheer mano a mano machismo of a home run hitter squinting and digging in against a fastball pitcher.

The knockout in boxing?

That's about as close as it gets, although it is worth noting: When's the last time McGwire bit off half of a bullpen closer's ear?

"Somehow in my mind, I equate the home run with the knockout punch," Scully says. "And even in baseball when people are describing the home run, it's always, 'He ripped it, he belted it, he scorched it, he hammered it, he killed it.' It's a very, very aggressive part of the game."

Sparky Anderson, former manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, also uses boxing imagery when discussing America's affinity for the home run.

"In the history of boxing, the greatest fighters have never been the heavyweights," Anderson says, "but who are the people fascinated by? The guy who lowers the bomb. They love to see the bomb, the big thing go off.

"Guys like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn, such great hitters, they never got the attention that the guys who hit home runs do. Go back to Ralph Kiner and all of them.

"I really don't understand it. It's like the kid down in Texas, [Juan] Gonzalez. To me, he's having an unbelievable year. But he's only got 38 home runs or something, so he's just penny ante.

"But it's that way. Boxing's that way. Football. There are the guys who complete all these short passes. But the guy who throws them bombs, he's The Guy. Always has been, always will be.

"It's always been said, 'You drive Cadillacs if you hit home runs. You drive Fords and Chevys if you hit singles.' "

Power Play

Not that there's anything wrong with that, the home run sluggers of today contend.

"Americans love power," McGwire explained during one of his now daily McGwire-side chats with the national sporting media. "Big cars. Big trucks. Big people. Baseball fans have always been drawn to the home run and the guy throwing close to 100 miles per hour. That's what they want to come and see.

"I remember as a kid, I always wanted to go see Mike Schmidt and Dave Kingman, or Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana. It's like going to see golfers. John Daly when he came in and was hitting over 300 [yards], then Tiger. Not everybody can do that."

Tim Salmon of the Angels notes, quite accurately, that "when you're growing up, you don't dream about getting a single to win a big game. You think about hitting the home run to win it. That's the fascination.

"It's like in football--you want to be the quarterback throwing the winning touchdown pass. Or in basketball sinking the shot at the buzzer. Home runs are something as a kid you identify with and dream about."

Forget whatever you may have been told in Kevin Costner's treacly "Field of Dreams." The truth of the matter is that in baseball, in late 1990s America, if you hit it far, they will pay attention.

"There's a sense of, 'Wow, look at that!,' " says Robert Creamer, author of the 1974 Babe Ruth biography, "Babe: The Legend Comes To Life." "It's also vicarious, the idea that when someone does one thing well, other human beings feel it.

"During Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak in 1941, everyone loved DiMaggio. It was just the most exciting thing, to have this guy doing this day after day. Why? I think it was a human being saying, 'Yeah, one of our guys did that.' There's just a vicarious satisfaction that comes from another human being doing something so well."

Which leads directly to the suddenly sold-out audiences at Busch Stadium, who aren't there to see if the Cardinals can climb to within 19 1/2 games of first-place Houston.

"The home run has an audience-participation aspect to it," says Donald Honig, a baseball historian and author. "The ball's hit and you come to your feet. You're a part of it. You watch the outfielder go back. For a few seconds, you all share in it.

"It's like the 50-yard pass in football. You watch it go out there and everything depends on it. Unlike a snappy play in the infield, which happens so fast you need to watch the replay to fully appreciate it."

Those few seconds of suspense while the ball is in the air--exhilarating or excruciating, depending on one's particular rooting interest--provide a rush that no other element in baseball can consistently deliver.

"There's a certain amount of majesty to it," Scully says. "The flight of the ball, it stays in the air so much longer than any other ball that's hit. . . . I think it just mesmerizes people."

A dissenting opinion is offered up by Angel pitcher Chuck Finley on behalf of every sorry soul who ever stood alone on the mound and watched his finely crafted handiwork get pummeled from here to the upper deck.

Finley's theory on America's obsession with the home run?

"The same reason people go to stock car races," he says. "They want to see wrecks."

The Old Days

It wasn't always this way. Before Babe Ruth, the home run was regarded as a freak, an accident, a needless luxury that threatened to corrupt the game and sully its cricket-like principles of making contact and putting the ball in play.

The presiding philosophy of the day was best articulated by outfielder Wee Willie Keeler, who ended his career in 1910 with 2,962 total hits--2,536 of them singles:

"I hit 'em where they ain't."

The long-ball legend of the era, Frank "Home Run" Baker, finished his career with 96 homers--fewer than McGwire has hit since opening day 1997--and a single-season high of 12.

Then in 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs and followed it the next season with 54. Fans reared on the sacrifice bunt and the Baltimore Chop could scarcely comprehend the numbers; this was the stuff of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Ripley. Purists and pundits were appalled.

"If you read Ring Lardner closely, you get the impression he was sour on this kind of baseball," Creamer says. "It wasn't the kind of baseball he was used to. He felt [the home run] cheapened it."

Ty Cobb, poster boy for the fading hit-behind-the-runner era, was bitterly resentful over how Ruth crassly barged his way onto baseball's center stage.

"Early in Ruth's career, Cobb said some nasty things about Ruth," Vincent notes. "He'd say, 'Ruth's not playing real baseball because he's putting the ball into the stands.' "

Eventually, Cobb and his ilk would be swept away by the tide of public opinion. Ruth's larger-than-life home-run exploits captured the mood, as Lucas puts it, of "a society on the move and changing rapidly and sort of self-indulgent."

"Ruth sort of epitomized the social revolution of the 1920s," Creamer says. "He certainly wasn't the only one doing these great things then. You had Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in golf, Bill Tilden in tennis, Red Grange.

"There was just this succession of people doing things that hadn't been done before. What Ruth did was do more and do it bigger and do it louder and more dramatically than anybody else. So he really set the tone."

Big soon became synonymous with better, eventually reaching a point where the once-storied singles-hitting specialist is about to go the way of the flannel uniform and the day-night doubleheader.

"How many Rod Carew and Wade Boggs types do you see any more, players who are content to make contact and spray the ball around?" Honig asks. "I think the average player today would rather hit .250 with 28 home runs than .300 with 11 home runs."

Uniquely American

It is a concept that doesn't quite translate globally. John Callaghan, a professor of exercise science at USC, was born in England and raised on cricket and soccer, sports that emphasize finesse and mental acuity over brawn and brute strength.

"Thuggery," is how Callaghan laughingly refers to the home run. "When I first came here and would speak about this, I said they just seem to swing and they fail two-thirds of the time to make contact. And I've always maintained they haven't a clue where they're hitting it. They're just trying to belt it as far as they can.

"Essentially, the difference between that and cricket is that in cricket, every time a batsman hits it, he's sort of in control and he hits it in a certain direction. In baseball, it's my impression that they're just taking a swipe at it and if everything comes off, then it goes out. It's sheer brutality in a sense."

Callaghan laughs again.

"That might be unkind to the whole sport," he says. "If I said that to my kids at home, they'd slaughter me."

Callaghan believes Americans are fascinated with the big blow, the monster home run, because "we love scoring here. Americans just can't appreciate all the lovely finesse in soccer, all that goes on in a 1-nil victory. If the score got to 8-7, they'd be absolutely wonderfully, wonderfully happy. But 1-nil, they just don't get it . . .

"In baseball, we're constantly [fed] another success, another home run. Just like in basketball--a 120-119 game gets us absolutely delirious. And of course, the first three quarters don't mean a damn thing."

Callaghan admits such talk on this side of the pond is "heretical," yet he finds an unlikely ally in a 64-year-old former baseball manager named Sparky.

"I've never been a fan of the home run," says Anderson, whose great Cincinnati teams of the 1970s--"The Big Red Machine"--were built on it. "Naturally, when it happens and you win a game, yeah, but I've never been a fan of it.

"Because if you go back and you really trace a whole season and trace all the home runs hit by everybody and then figure out percentage-wise how many of them meant the ballgame, you'd be shocked. Not many at all.

"[Home runs] usually add on to a good whipping or they come in a big loss. You're losing, 9-4, and you hit a home run. Now what good does that home run do? Nothing. . . .

"The name of the game is pitching and defense, no matter how you cut it. I'll give you all the power you want. Select it all, take all the choices you want. And let me select the pitching. And I will beat your brains out."

Even from the perspective of the fan, the home run "is too simple a thrill," Creamer acknowledges.

"Build something up," he says. "Get a rally going. If you're down by three or four runs and your team starts hitting singles and moving the runners around, you get a sense of 'Can we keep doing this?' And it builds and it builds. A home run is boop, there it is.

"It's great, but it's over in a hurry."

If baseball were chess, bunts and infield shifts would be the intricate moves that cause the bespectacled masters looking on to stroke their chins and nod approvingly. Game well played. And the home run? It would be the one angry swipe of the chessboard by a meaty forearm, sending pawns and knights flying all over the lot. Game over.

It may be clumsy and it may be dumb, but the home run in 1998 has re-energized a floundering pastime much the same way it did with Ruth nearly 80 years ago.

Even Anderson, a long ball agnostic, pauses to exclaim, "Thank God for this.

"Because this was a savior. These guys, Griffey and Sosa and McGwire, this is a case of players actually saving a game. It's unbelievable what they've done. You look at the crowds that they draw when they go in [and compare them] against the way it used to be. . . .

"You look at how these guys have handled themselves and conducted themselves and you have to say, man, they've taken this game and put it right on their shoulders and said, 'Let's go. We're moving forward.' "

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