JUICED? Live-ball theories conspire to create lively controversy

April 24, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Major League BaseballSun Staff Writer

Toronto Blue Jays rookie Carlos Delgado started all this, though he probably didn't know it at the time. His Hard Rock home run on Opening Day at SkyDome was the first sign that something might not be quite right with the baseball.

Earlier that day, somebody named Tuffy Rhodes had hit three straight homers in Chicago, but the wind was blowing out and it was Wrigley Field, so it didn't raise many eyebrows.

It was Delgado who made people wonder. His first major-league home run traveled about 450 feet and scared the Molsons right out of the Cuppies (Canadian urban professionals) who crowd the trendy Hard Rock Cafe high above right field.

It happened again the next night. He hit one that nearly shattered Windows, the upscale restaurant that hangs over the center-field bleachers. By the end of the week, he was tied for the major-league lead in home runs with eight and his Herculean performance was leading to speculation that somebody had been messing with the ball.

"How do I do it?" Delgado asked. "Don't ask me how I do it. I don't know."

Nobody knew, but a lot of people were getting suspicious. Delgado was not the only player with seemingly superhuman power. New York Mets second baseman Jeff Kent -- coincidentally, another product of the Toronto Blue Jays' minor-league system -- was taking the National League by storm. Neither is a household name, but both are challenging the major-league record for home runs in April (11).

Then Tim Raines hit three home runs in a game, as did Cory Snyder, and the Atlanta Braves hit back-to-back-to-back home runs twice in four days. Could it all be a coincidence, or is the ball wound a little tighter?

"It's something that we're looking into," said acting commissioner Bud Selig. "I've asked the manufacturer and they say there is no difference in the ball. I guess we have to take their word for that. We're going to continue to investigate, but we've found no evidence that there has been any change in the manufacture of the ball."

The cumulative home run and scoring statistics in the first three weeks haven't done anything to quiet the controversy. Home runs are up 50 percent in the American League and 40 percent in the National League over the same period last year. Overall offensive production has risen about 15 percent in each league.

"Everybody has a theory," Selig said. "I was at a local function with [Brewers catcher] Brian Harper the other day, and his theory is that players are just bigger and stronger.

"Some say it's expansion and the dilution of the pitching. Some say players are bigger and stronger. The pitchers say that it's a lively ball. I guess the most logical answer is, all of the above."

The ball is the easiest target, as it was when similar statistical aberrations appeared in 1987. Most of the other possible factors -- and there are many -- would not explain such a dramatic upswing in offense, but a combination of them might.

"I think today's athlete is bigger, stronger and more well-conditioned," said Kent, who at week's end led the National League in RBIs (23) and home runs (eight). "I think guys are better, more fine-tuned and continuing to improve. People can say what they want about the rawhide that we're hitting, but the ball still has the name of the old league president on it, so I don't think it's the ball."

Players are bigger than they once were. It seems as if everyone engages in some sort of off-season weight training, which was almost unheard of as recently as the late 1970s. There also have been changes in the hitting environment -- new, homer-friendly parks in Baltimore, Chicago, Texas and Cleveland, and thinner air at Mile High Stadium in Denver. They even made it easier to clear the fences at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and removed the Plexiglas fence extensions in the outfield at the already quite cozy Metrodome.

There is even room in this controversy for conspiracy buffs, who suggest that baseball ownership has adopted a livelier baseball to improve television ratings, since revenues from the game's new network contract are directly linked to the size of the audience.

"That gives us a lot of credit for being able to plan our business in a very careful and minute way," Selig said. "It's pure nonsense."

The most popular argument against the live ball is the effect of expansion on the overall quality of pitching in the major leagues. The addition of two new teams would figure to dilute pitching talent, but if that were the major factor, why didn't this happen last year?

"It's all hype," Kent said. "People want to make something out of nothing. They make money talking about it and writing about it. There are a lot of explanations. Bats are different now -- more weight-balanced than they used to be. And maybe it's just me, but I haven't seen a lot of new faces on the mound lately. Maybe players are getting more familiar with the pitchers."

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