Power Numbers Up In Baseball...Hmmm
Now, they’re doing verbal gymnastics to try to explain why the power numbers are up so far this season, at a time when bad weather usually has a negative effect on hitters.
After the first two weeks of the season, eight National League hitters have hit at least six home runs; Albert Pujols of the Cardinals has hit 10. In the American League, seven hitters have at least six, including Eric Chavez and Nick Swisher of the A’s. Detroit’s Chris Shelton had nine in his first 13 games, the first AL player in history to reach that total so fast.
In yesterday’s games, six teams scored more than 10 runs, topped by Cleveland’s 15-1 victory over Baltimore. Milwaukee scored 12 runs and lost, because Houston scored 13.
What’s happening? I think the ball has been juiced up again, because owners know that power displays sell tickets. They knew it in the ‘20s, when Babe Ruth ushered in the lively ball era. They knew it in the ‘30s, when they juiced up the ball to draw fans in Depression era baseball, giving hitters a chance to put up gaudy offensive stats. They knew it in the ‘90s, when they juiced up the ball before the ’93 season.
I’ve felt that the livelier ball has had a bigger impact on the power totals than steroids, because pitchers are taking steroids, too. That puts some balance into the pitcher-hitter battle, but if the ball is juiced, it’s only the hitters who benefit.
In the 1992 season, National League teams averaged 105 home runs, American League teams averaged 127. The figures for the two leagues the next year were 140 and 148.
The National League added two teams for the ’93 season, so part of the 33 per cent jump in home runs could be attributed to expansion, with pitchers in the league who would otherwise have been in the minors. But the AL jump was more than 16 per cent, with the same teams as the year before.
The next year, Matt Williams had 43 home runs in the 115 games the Giants played before the labor dispute wiped out the rest of the season. Had it continued, at that pace, Williams had a shot at breaking what was then the season home run record, the 61 hit by Roger Maris in 1961. Ken Griffey was not far behind, with 40 home runs in 112 games. Griffey has said he never took steroids, and his body build confirms that. Nobody who knows Williams would think he took steroids.
Griffey followed that with full season marks of 49, 56, 56 and 48 in the 1996-99 years. Had he not been hobbled by a series of injuries, he’d be threatening the Ruth/Henry Aaron career home run records now.
THERE’S ANOTHER reason I’ve been skeptical of the steroids uproar: I’ve been in team locker rooms.
When I covered the Raiders, 1967-71, the team’s trainers would set out large Tupperware bowls of pills, obviously so they could say if asked that they never directly gave anything to players. After practice, some players would grab off handfuls of these pills. I never knew what they were, but for sure they weren’t M and M’s.
As long as I’ve been around baseball, players have been taking amphetamines, colloquially known as “greenies”. Though not technically performance-enhancing, they were able to counteract the mental and physical fatigue of the long season. Now that they’re banned, many baseball people think that day games after night games will be played in relatively slow motion.
The point is, athletes are always looking for something that will give them an edge. Steroids are a logical extension of that.
Other writers, who have had similar experiences to mine, know that. They weren’t bothered by the power displays of the ‘90s, or the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998, when both McGwire and Sosa made a shambles of the Maris record. It was only when Barry Bonds started his record-breaking run that writers started zeroing in on this issue.
It’s pretty clear that the writers already hated Bonds and are using the steroids issue to hammer him. Bonds’ first major league manager, Jim Leyland, said yesterday that Bond was being singled out. “This is a hands-down, go-after-Barry Bonds thing,” said Leyland, who added, “I’m certainly not indicating I would defend him. But I get sick of hearing about it. They’re single-handedly going after Barry Bonds.”
The charge has been led by The Chronicle, which should not surprise those who know newspaper history. The Chronicle resembles the pre-2000 newspaper only in its name. When Hearst bought the paper, the editors from the old Examiner came over with a clear agenda to turn the paper into a replica of the Examiner. They’ve succeeded, which comes under the heading of “Be careful what you wish for.”
The Hearst papers have a long history of crusades, starting with William Randolph Hearst. The current editors thought the steroids coverage would win them a Pulitzer. It didn’t, perhaps because the Pulitzer jurors feel as I do, that a campaign that has leaked grand jury testimony as its centerpiece is not a good journalistic model.
But the hammering on Bonds continues. Like Leyland, I’m not defending Bonds, who is a loathsome individual, but it’s ridiculous to single him out in this way.
FANS AND writers alike want to think of sports as somehow being a pure endeavor, as they did in their childhood. Sorry, people, but it wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.
Records are not sancrosanct. Conditions change, players change, rules change. Football recognizes this. Though records are celebrated, nobody pretends that today’s statistics can be compared to earlier eras. It is only in baseball where writers and fans alike think that it’s possible to compare statistics from different eras.
Forget the talk about a “level playing field.” In fact, baseball has always been manipulated, by pitchers using illegal pitches, by hitters putting substances into their bodies which they think will improve performance, by owners juicing the ball to get better offensive records.
Now, we’re seeing another artifically-induced surge in power numbers and, guess what, Bonds hasn’t hit a home run yet. So, could we please just shut up about steroids and enjoy the games?
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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