OAKLAND, CALIF. -- When baseball's best practitioners assembled for all-star festivities, not all thoughts were festive. Some brows were furrowed in puzzlement, some eyebrows were elevated by suspicion and some lips were pursed in disapproval about the fact that baseballs are being hit over fences at a record rate.
Many a cynic with a flair for le mot juste says the ball has been ''juiced.'' This is a base canard, but one that illustrates the American tendency to explain puzzlements in terms of conspiracies or technology or, as in the current case, both.
Cynics say: In the 1920s the ball was made livelier to rescue baseball from the ''Black Sox'' scandal. Baseball recently got a black eye from drugs, and fans love home runs, ergo . . .
Ergo schmergo. True, home runs are crowd pleasers. As a morose owner once said: ''Fans like home runs and we have assembled a pitching staff to please our fans.'' But the homer glut, properly understood, illustrates the inadequacy of explanations that involve a single cause or a malevolent motive.
The sudden disequilibrium between hitting and pitching does have something to do with a new technology -- the alumnimum bat used by high schools and colleges to save money. Wood bats break, but aluminium bats demoralize pitchers by making Wade Boggses out of banjo hitters. It is harder to get a fastball by the faster, livelier aluminum bats. Even a jammed hitter often dumps the ball over the infield. So pitchers, including youngsters whose arms are still developing, rely on breaking, sinking pitches that wear out arms.
In the 1960s, pitchers such as Juan Marichal and Bob Gibson (both of whom also had terrific fastballs) showed that low pitching is the ticket to Cooperstown. Umpires call what is thrown, but take something away, so the strike zone became lower and smaller. Today a pitch above the belt is usually a ball. This trend was intensified when American League plate umpires quit wearing the cumbersome ''mattress'' chest protectors that required them to stand almost erect behind the catcher. Now they, like National League umpires, wear chest protectors under their shirts and crouch next to the catchers on the inside corner of the plate. This, too, has pulled the strike zone down, encouraging those sinking pitches that take a toll on arms.
Furthermore, pitching in organized baseball, meaning the professional leagues, is declining because disorganized baseball, meaning what kids do, is becoming too organized. Strong arms are developed by years of throwing the way the American child was meant to throw -- from sunup to sundown. But today's children are schlepped hither and yon in station wagons, play a few innings of baseball, and then are whisked on to other, needless to say, lesser activities.
When pitching gets strong, batters get relief: the pitching mound was lowered in 1968. When pitching gets bad, batters get greedy. Strikeouts also are up this year, because more batters are swinging away with two strikes on them, trying to reach the bleachers and the big contracts.
The cynics who want a special prosecutor appointed to dissect the ball make much of the fact that rookie Mark McGwire, the Oakland Athletics' man-child, had hit 33 home runs by the all-star break. (The full-season record for a rookie is 38.) But look at him. Take an afternoon and walk around him. He is a growing boy of 23 and at 6-feet-5 and 220 pounds, he looks like a redwood that wandered over to Oakland from Muir Woods.
When his teammate Jose Canesco, last year's rookie-of-the-year, came to Oakland, the team had to send out for a uniform that would accommodate his biceps. Lively ball? These guys could hit rice pudding 400 feet.
Human beings are becoming bigger (perhaps antibiotics are the explanation) and hitters are helping evolution along by using weight training. Tom Boswell of The Post says (he really talks this way): ''Hitters are mesomorphs, pitchers are ectomorphs.'' (You don't know what those words mean? Look them up -- I had to.) Rendering that thought into the vulgate, Boswell says that in the locker room the pitchers look like the guys the other players beat up.
A ''juiced'' ball may have been used in the early 1930s to draw crowds during the Depression. In the 1970s, such a ball was used briefly in spring training, until it became clear that pitchers were going to be decapitated by line drives. But today the single-cause crowd that explains home runs in terms of a doctored ball should remember Einstein's (or was it Boswell's? I can't keep those two straight) axiom: explanations should be as simple as possible -- but not any simpler.