There's Something in the Air, Other Than Another Ball Headed for the Fence

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, May 23, 2008

Ever since baseball returned from its strike in 1995, the game's aesthetics have been out of whack. For 13 seasons, home runs have been out of control, while scoring ranged from high to ridiculous. The game's traditional statistics, based on more than a century of broadly accepted standards about what constituted sensible balance between offense and defense, were tortured and, in the case of many landmark numbers, rendered obsolete.

Now -- in a Roger Clemens minute, in a Barry Bonds blink -- the problem may be fixed.

This spring, for the second straight year, home run totals, like the game's conspicuous muscles, have shrunk dramatically. Last season's 8 percent drop in home runs was welcomed, but with caution. Would the tater barrage simply resume? But now, in the wake of the Mitchell report, home runs have fallen this spring by another 10.4 percent.

Suddenly, a sport that produced 5,386 home runs in 2006 is on pace for 4,442 this year -- a 17.5 percent drop, or a loss of almost 1,000 home runs in just two seasons.

If the current trend continues, baseball might return to the levels at which many students of the game think the sport has been healthiest and most pleasing: an average of a bit more than nine runs and slightly less than two home runs per game.

This season, major league teams have scored 8.98 runs per game. Since 1871, there have been 1,750,230 runs in the majors, an average of 9.11 per game. Warm weather, when fly balls carry farther, might bring the game almost exactly back to its long-term scoring trend.

"That's good news. No, it's great," said the Nationals' Randy St. Claire, chuckling because he's a pitching coach.

What is the cause?

"Just say that guys look like ballplayers again, like they looked when I was growing up, not like musclemen," said St. Claire, 47.

If the arrival of the Steroid Age was gradual, arriving full-blown in the late '90s, then peaking with 5,693 homers in the insane season of 2000, when 47 players hit at least 30 homers, then its reversal might come quite quickly. This spring, only 24 players are on pace for at least 30 home runs.

"A 'cold spring' doesn't account for an almost 20 percent drop in home runs in two years," Orioles President Andy MacPhail said. "It's foolish not to think there's some correlation to more drug testing and all the [legal] attention [on steroids]. There are still people out there trying to cheat. There will always be people who try to get around the rules one way or another. But there are not as many now."

We'll have to let the season play out before victory is declared. Nevertheless, last year was the first season since 1997 when baseball had fewer than 5,000 homers. And to find a season with a home run pace comparable to the first 50 games of 2008, you must go back to 1993 -- before the strike, before "Chicks Dig the Long Ball," before the game turned its eyes away from steroid use and practically condoned any abuse of chemistry.

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