Is there really such a thing as too much of a good thing?
This season, baseball seems determined to find out. If you like runs, and especially home runs, you should be ecstatic. The game has pushed the plausible parameters of offense to the absolute maximum -- without quite bursting the game's traditions. If you examine the sport's annals, you can justify the rowdy, grand-slamming, pitcher-stomping bash the game is currently throwing. But barely, just barely. We're near the edge.
Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are revisiting a world that was once inhabited for more than a decade by legends such as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bill Dickey, Al Simmons and Charlie Gehringer. We're revisiting run-scoring levels that are almost -- but not quite -- as high as those that prevailed in the American League from 1930 through 1941.
From an historical perspective, this late-'90s baseball is as exciting, spectacular and heroic as offense can get until the sport turns a corner and runs the risk of resembling Sunday-picnic softball. To go further than the point we've now reached -- with Ramirez on pace for 213 RBI and the Mariners for 333 home runs -- is to tempt the wrath of the gods. Baseball is a national heirloom. Who dares reshape it merely for fun and profit?
However, to tame this power age -- to raise the mound, deaden the ball, abolish the designated hitter -- is financially foolish and, perhaps, even cowardly.
How far can this fine madness go? As the first third of the season ends, we're surely getting the answer. Last month, Cincinnati beat Colorado 24-12. Baltimore had a 10-run first inning. And Nomar Garciaparra had 10 RBI in one game. Grand slam homers? We've had a few. Ken Griffey hit them in back-to-back games. Robin Ventura did it in both games of a doubleheader. And Fernando Tatis had slams in the same inning.
If you don't watch the daily highlights, you miss sights nobody has ever seen before. Big Mac may "only" be on a pace for 53 homers -- partly because of injuries -- but the blasts he launches seem to go farther than ever.
In batting practice before a preseason exhibition, McGwire hit the rooftop facade of RFK Stadium -- twice. Last month, he reached the roof of Dodger Stadium in center field. Had anyone even considered that possibility? Announcer Vin Scully made the dour observation that the '99 ball must be livelier. Perhaps some wise man of the '30s said the same when one of Foxx's line-drive homers shattered the back of a wooden seat in the bleachers. Hrumph, probably rotten wood, too.
The past 100 years have shown that baseball is in aesthetic balance when the average number of runs per game is 8, 9 or 10. About 9 is probably ideal. Between 7.5 and 8.5 signifies a pitching-dominant era and 9.5 to 10.5 is a power period. Once you get under 7 or over 11, however, the game is not healthy. After a disaster like 1968 (6.8 runs a game), rules get changed.
Where are we now? In the National League, the game has no problem: 9.83 runs and 2.21 homers per game this season. We've seen such run levels many times before, though the number of homers have seldom been higher. The American League is where an overheating problem may develop with 10.68 runs and 2.39 homers per game this year. If the AL cracks 11 runs and 2.5 homers, then it's probably time to raise the mound.
Remarkable as it seems with the contributions of Sosa and McGwire, the NL last season offered a perfectly sane brand of offense -- 9.19 runs and 1.98 homers per game. That's normal scoring and a homer level comparable to the NL throughout the 1950s. Unless we want to start impugning Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson, we have to acknowledge that McGwire and Sosa set their homer marks under perfectly legitimate offensive conditions.
Baseball has different faces in different periods. That's one of its appeals, not one of its problems. As a kid, I saw Roger Maris hit 61 homers against expansion-diluted pitching. In my college days, Denny McLain won 31 games when any fastball lower than the hitter's chin seemed to be a strike. Since then, we've had long periods of balance, spiced by individual seasons of mysterious jackrabbit balls (such as 1987 with 2.32 homers a game). We even had an era of turf-field speed when Lou Brock, then Rickey Henderson shattered dead-ball steal marks by amazing margins.
What we're seeing now is an offensive explosion entirely comparable to the American League from 1930 through 1941. Then, batting averages were higher and homers fewer than now, but the net result was the same: 10.45 runs a game over a dozen seasons. The '99 big league average: 10.26.
So far this season, Griffey, Sosa and Jose Canseco all are on pace to hit from 60 to 62 homers. Griffey also is aimed directly at 175 RBI. Houston's Craig Biggio is aligned for 70-plus doubles. Should we note these astronomical numbers with a snicker and a dismissive, "They're not that good"? Do so if you wish.
But if you do, then be sure to mock Gehrig, too. His staggering RBI totals in the '30s (184, 174, 165, 159, 152, 151) must be discredited, also, right? Be sure to mark down Foxx and Greenberg's 58-homer years as tainted. Hack Wilson's 190 RBI don't really count, nor Bill Terry's .401 season, either.
Obviously, we can't honestly pick and choose among these records. We just need to be sensible. Perhaps the feats we're seeing these days need to be discounted a bit. So should Gehrig's. But neither needs to be denigrated. Most of all, let's enjoy them. What we're seeing only comes around once in a lifetime. Last time baseball had a blowout like this, it lasted a dozen years. Then the punch bowl was taken away for more than half a century.
Party like it's 1999. Last call always comes sooner than you think.
CAPTION: Mariners slugger Ken Griffey Jr. is partly responsible for run-scoring level that is almost as high as the one in American League from 1930 through '41. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)