At halfway point, a bashing bonanza Baseball: Sluggers are taking it to diluted pitching staffs and adding excitement to the game with runs on the single-season home run and RBI records.

July 09, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

No wonder they call this an expansion year. The 1998 season has arrived at its traditional midpoint, and everything looks bigger than before.

In some cases, a lot bigger.

St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire remains comfortably ahead of the pace necessary to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record, and he is not alone.

Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa and Seattle Mariners superstar Ken Griffey are close behind, creating the tantalizing possibility of a multi-player record chase in September.

Perhaps even more impressive, Texas Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez is on pace to challenge Hack Wilson's single-season record of 190 RBIs, which hasn't been in serious danger since the Roosevelt administration.

Coincidence?

Obviously not. Major League Baseball has expanded twice in the last five years, diluting an already shallow pool of pitching talent to the point where the game's top offensive stars are almost impossible to hold in check.

McGwire has hit three home runs in a game twice already. Gonzalez has driven in five runs in a game five times. Sosa recently hit 21 home runs in a 30-day period. Don't even try to project that out over a full season.

Purists wax apoplectic about the apparent imbalance between pitching and hitting that has developed during the expansion era, but nobody in the stands seems to mind.

"That's why this game is such a great game right now," said McGwire. "I think that's why a lot of fans are coming back, because of all the great things that are happening."

It isn't just about expansion. It's about the biggest offensive stars getting bigger and better at a time when the overall baseball talent pool has been thinned by expansion and the heightened popularity of other sports.

In actuality, the overall scoring statistics at the All-Star break are only marginally higher than they were last year. Scoring in the American League is up about 2 percent. The average runs per game scored in the National League this season is slightly lower than the overall per-game average in the NL in 1997.

"I think it really tells you how good those guys are," said four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves. "They're staying healthy. They've gotten better over the years, and they're not missing their pitches. I think the pitching is as good as it's always been. Expansion has thinned it out a hair, but I don't think there's a big difference between now and a few years ago."

Maddux may be presenting an overly rosy view of the state of major-league pitching in the 1990s, but his sentiments are echoed by others who feel that it isn't fair to discount the achievements of this year's top offensive stars.

"I think we're losing a lot of athletes [to other sports]," said Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who has a chance to become the first player in major-league history to hit 50 homers and steal 50 bases in the same season. "Pitching is watered down a little bit, but hitters are stronger and faster. They've got all this videotape. There are just some awesome hitters out there.

"If you put Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle next to Mark McGwire, they'd look like his grandkids."

Of course, the top pitchers still are going to keep runs off the scoreboard, but the 1998 offensive bonanza also has been facilitated by a rash of injuries that has decimated the upper echelon of the game's pitching ranks.

The Orioles have been hit as hard as anyone, with pitching ace Mike Mussina forced onto the disabled list twice by freak injuries and Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki also spending extended periods on the sidelines.

The Anaheim Angels have lost Ken Hill and Jack McDowell. The Cardinals have been without three top starters for most of the first half. The Los Angeles Dodgers have lost Ramon Martinez for the rest of the season. The Kansas City Royals have been without Kevin Appier since spring training. The list goes on and on.

Not that the pitching crisis has -- necessarily -- diminished the entertainment value of the national pastime.

That isn't the sky falling. It's another 500-foot home run landing in somebody's backyard off Waveland Avenue on the north side of Chicago. It's McGwire visiting Cleveland's Jacobs Field for a three-game interleague series and putting a dent in the scoreboard high above left field.

Fans love offense. They love big numbers. And they love, most of all, home runs. If the 1998 season is in danger of becoming cartoonish, with McGwire in the large-forearmed role of Popeye, it does not seem to bother the masses, who turn out early everywhere just to watch him hit fake home runs in batting practice.

McGwire and baseball's other big boppers arrived just in time to divert attention from a less fortuitous fact of life in 1998: There hasn't been much pennant suspense.

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