Baseball on power trip in '96 O's not only team putting up big numbers in year of the long ball

September 26, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Early this season, Earl Weaver gave one of his former Orioles players a bit of advice. "Earl told me to forget the steal and the bunt, and go for the long one," said Davey Johnson, current Orioles manager. "He said: 'Just go for the long one. Don't get a lot of guys who can run. They'll drive you crazy getting picked off.' "

Johnson listens as well as he manages. The Orioles have already broken the major-league club record for home runs in a season and have used those home runs the way Weaver did when he managed the Orioles -- to contend for the playoffs.

The Orioles aren't quite there, but they are one of the teams that has benefited from the home run in a season that has felt the crushing impact of the home run as no previous season had.

No one can say exactly why more home runs have been hit, but everyone has an opinion. The two most popular views are that the quality of pitching has continued to deteriorate in the aftermath of the most recent expansionin 1993, and that the ball is livelier.

This year many baseball people suggest that the ball is wound tighter than in the past, but no concrete evidence has been offered. Evidence of poor pitching, on the other hand, is prevalent. It can be seen in the soaring earned run averages of individual pitchers and entire pitching staffs.

Among other reasons cited, baseball players and officials point to a shrunken strike zone, the growing size and strength of hitters and the new parks that are generally smaller and more conducive to home runs.

Without their ton of home runs (251, the Orioles most likely would not be in the playoff chase.

The Seattle Mariners, who also passed the 1961 Yankees' record of 240 with three home runs in yesterday's win, probably wouldn't be there, either. Like the Orioles, they have been able to overcome second-rate pitching with power production.

The Yankees, on the other hand, overcame a lack of power in winning their first division championship since 1981. The Yankees will be the only team in the American League playoffs without 200 home runs.

Then there are the Colorado Rockies, who have failed to reach the playoffs in spite of being the only National League team with 200.

The Rockies broke one of the many major-league records for home runs this season, hitting 145 home runs at home (the Rockies set the former record, 134, last year), but their dual hitting personality undermined their chances of reaching the playoffs a second straight season. While hitting 145 home runs in 78 home games, they only hit 69 in 79 road games.

"It's really ridiculous the way we play on the road," Rockies manager Don Baylor said. "The level of enthusiasm goes from the apex in Denver to nonexistent on the road. It's like we're swinging under water. It's really disheartening. You see the hitters and watch their approach at Coors Field. You can't believe you're watching the same team on the road."

The Rockies, though, are a glaring exception. Other teams are equal-opportunity home run hitters. As a result, each league and the major leagues combined have broken season home run records.

Entering Tuesday's games, teams had hit 4,816 home runs, breaking the record of 4,458 set in 1987. That season the majors averaged 2.12 home runs a game; this season the average has been 2.20.

Six American League teams have hit 200 or more home runs compared with three in 1987, none in 1993 (the last previous complete season) and one last season. The pitching staffs of seven AL teams have given up 200 or more home runs compared with four in 1987, none in 1993 and one last season.

Before this season, the record for players hitting 40 or more home runs was eight; 14 players have reached that plateau this season. Records have also been broken for players hitting 30 or more (39, compared with a record 28 in 1987) compared with a record 28 in 1987) and 20 or more (82, compared with a record 79 in 1987.)

Of those 82 players, 48 have reached career highs this season. Most notable of that group are Brady Anderson of the Orioles, whose 47 home runs more than double his previous high of 21; Steve Finley of San Diego, up from 11 to 28; Terry Steinbach of Oakland, 16 to 33; and Todd Hundley of the Mets, who not only has far exceeded his previous high of 16 with 41, but also has set a major-league record for home runs by catchers.

"You expect certain players to hit home runs," said John Schuerholz, the Atlanta Braves general manager. "But look at the class below the class of guys who are considered home run hitters. Anderson, Finley, guys like that."

Will home run totals remain at this stratospheric level or will they recede to a level that won't make calculators work overtime?

"If the ball remains as tightly wound as it is," Schuerholz said, "if the strike zone remains the postage-stamp size it is, if pitching remains as mediocre and as thinned out as it is, as long as players continue to get stronger and become Adonis-like, I imagine the number of home runs will remain what they are."

But he quickly added: "Taking all those elements into consideration, do you think home runs have been viewed badly in the eyes of the public? No, fans love it. I don't think it's all bad. I think it's good for the fact that it's one other element for people to sit up and take notice of."

Ten times in American League history, three players on the same team have hit 30 or more home runs in the same season. Only once did as many as two teams achieve that feat the same year.

This season the Mariners, the Indians and the Athletics each have three players with more than 30.

The record-breaking Orioles have only two players -- Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro -- beyond 30, but they have seven players who have hit 20 or more home runs. That's another record.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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