Invasion of the slugfest makes baseball tedious

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY : Rupert Cornwell, in Washington, yearns for the pitching duels of summers past
Click to follow
Never did I think that a recent and unabashed convert to the game of baseball would utter the words. But here goes. I am bored with home runs. And not merely bored. Pounded by them. Knocked dizzy and brainless by them, to the point of dreaming of an old-fashioned pitchers' duel, one of those virtually extinct 1-0 or 2-1 games where a lucky single can make the difference between triumph and despair. This year a plague of homers has descended on the land, baseball scores read like football games, and in my humble opinion America's national pastime is the poorer for it.

Logically, it should not be so. After all, the home run is one of the great thrills of all sport - a prodigy of arm and eye that enables a hitter armed with a bat less than three inches wide at its broadest point and just 0.4sec at his disposal to pick up a cricket-sized ball travelling at him at 80 or 90mph and rocket it back in the opposite direction, into the stands 350ft away. The spectacle is breathtaking.

If you can't get to the ballpark, radio, not television, is the way to follow a game, and the homer is heaven for the commentators, or play-by- play announcers as they call them here. The words, wafting half-heard from a radio somewhere on a warm July evening, are among America's indelible summer sounds: "A long drive... deep to centrefield... back, back, real deep... wave it goodbye, this one is g-o-o-one." Surely you can't get enough of it, can you? This year you can.

The precise reasons for the power explosion are a matter of argument among baseball sages, and more of that in a moment. But the figures speak for themselves. The eternal struggle between batter and pitcher has fluctuated over the years. But the hitting surge of the mid-1990s is without precedent. Two-thirds of the way through the regular season, baseball is on a pace to produce over 5,100 homers, way above the previous record of 4,458 in 1987. True, the nitpickers will point out, only 26 teams were in the major leagues then, compared with 28 today. But in 1993, the only full post- expansion season played, the 28 teams managed only 4,030 homers. This year's sluggers are 25 per cent more prolific, and some of the sport's most sacred records may fall.

With his 61 homers in 1961, Roger Maris expunged the single season record of his New York Yankee forerunner Babe Ruth from the record book. Now Maris is in danger of becoming history. Half a dozen players are threatening his mark, among them Mark McGwire of the Oakland A's, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, Mo Vaughan of the Boston Red Sox and Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians. Never have more than two players hit 50 homers in a season. This year five or six could. Some 20 could reach the 40-homer mark, compared with a previous record of eight, while three clubs - Baltimore, Oakland and Seattle - are on track to beat the Yankees' single-season record of 240 in 1961, the year of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

The explanations have multiplied with the homers themselves. Hitters, it is said, are more powerful and better trained than ever - which is true. Others blame the friendlier dimensions of the new downtown ballparks in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver. Umpires are criticised for shrinking the strike zone to little larger than a G-string, necessitating more of those fast balls down the middle upon which home run hitters feast. Then there is is the old chestnut of the "juiced" ball, allegedly produced with its inner layers wrapped tighter to make it carry farther. That theory at least may be dismissed.

The most plausible reason is poor pitching, traceable to the 1993 expansion. The same amount of quality pitching must be spread around 28 teams instead of 26, a thinning of talent which inevitably shows up over a six month season of 162 games. But, one may ask, why does not the same argument apply to the hitting?

Either way, the game is changing. The $2bn (pounds 1.29bn) a year baseball industry is happy enough with the trend: after all, it argues, the fans love a slugfest, and baseball needs all the love it can get after the unforgotten and still unforgiven lunacy of the players' strike of 1994/95. In fact, neither attendances nor television ratings have noticeably picked up since the onset of the home run glut.

The game meanwhile - especially in the slugger's paradise of the American League - is losing some of its subtler skills of base-running. No one steals home plate anymore: why take risks to manufacture one run when a single blast into the stands can bring you four? Which leads me to a final piece of advice in this era of homers by the handful. If you're in America this summer and contemplating a visit to a ballgame, bring a helmet.

Comments