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.
Of course, there's a flip side to any cleanup. Will the sport that sets revenue records every year remain rich with a return to the run-scoring levels of a long Golden Age, when players from Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt to Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan put their names in the record book?
Though several National League players, helped by their league's new parks with cozy dimensions, might hit more than 40 homers this year, only one American League player (the unlikely Carlos Quentin) is on a pace for more than 38 homers. After 73 by Bonds, asterisk or not, will that be enough? Will Lance Berkman, on pace for 55, carry the load?
"From a personal and aesthetic point of view, I like this kind of baseball better," MacPhail said. "I like a well-played game more than a slugfest. But plenty of fans like runs."
Even the most power-loving fan might lack a perspective on how insanely homers have exploded since 1997. First, let's get a sense of what, for decades, the sport considered normal in a great home run hitter and what it considered truly unique.
In the first 35 seasons after World War II, the average home run champ had 42.4 dingers. That's "normal." What constitutes off-the-charts for a great slugger? From 1939 until the steroid eruption, just three players had more than 52 homers in a season: Ralph Kiner (54) in '49, and Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54) in '61. That's the ceiling.
Then came designer steroids as well as human growth hormone for which baseball still has no test. Over the last dozen seasons, the average total for the home run champion in the American League and National League has been 53. So as cheating flourished, what once was the stuff of legend, a total higher than Mays ever achieved, became the norm for league leaders.
For a sport that established statistical norms over a century, this was a nuclear blast. After generations of patting itself on the back for an almost ideal game in which rules seldom needed more than tinkering to maintain an equilibrium, baseball suddenly bore little resemblance to itself. Brady Anderson hit 50 homers; Ted Williams never had 44.
If baseball truly has reduced its homer totals by something like 17.5 percent over the last two years -- and by a bit more than 20 percent since the loony peak of 1999-2001, when an average of 5,560 homers a year were hit -- then it's probably a blessing. If the current pattern holds, then the average home run champ's total would drop back to 44.
"I think this trend is a good thing, independent of what may have brought it about," MacPhail said. "It's more like baseball."
Those words, dropped casually, speak volumes when they come from a man who has built two world champions, whose grandfather ran the Yankees and whose father was American League president. MacPhail was raised on what baseball should be.
But he also has to meet a payroll -- a high one. If 1,250 fewer home runs than 2000 make him happy, then 2,000 fewer might make him faint. Shrink the players, shrink the sport?
"There's not just one reason home runs went up. The strike zone got smaller. Players lift weights more. New parks were smaller," MacPhail said. "Now you're seeing some new parks being built that are normal size, like Washington, that help the pitcher a little. But this has always been a game that paid off on the big home run numbers."
For the moment, there appear to be few worries. Home run totals always inch up in summer, so the eventual drop this season likely will be similar to last year's 8 percent fall. Few developments could be better for the game. Crowd-pleasing home run totals still are a hair high by historical standards while runs scored are, generally speaking, where they've been since '71 -- 1871.
Now, if warm weather will please arrive to boost every blast. After all, there's one thing worse for baseball than too many tainted home runs: a scrawny sport with too few.