Integrity of baseball slugged, too

June 05, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

It's not baseball, it's bashball. It's painful to watch. And it's bad for the game.

Major-league attendance might be up 2 percent, but check out the empty seats at the end of these slugfests. Do fans really want to see all these runs? All these lame relievers? All these nightly marathons?

If the goal of Bud Selig and Co. was to create more offense -- a charge the commissioner denies -- they've succeeded only in numbing the senses. The question is not simply one of entertainment value. At stake is the game's legacy.

One of baseball's most appealing qualities is the consistency of its statistics, the enduring values of a .300 batting average, 50 homers and 100 RBIs.

Such achievements once were considered remarkable.

No more.

"Is it good for the game? I don't know," Selig said from his Milwaukee office Thursday. "Some people either give us credit or blame for it. But I can assure you that this has happened not by any design."

It will not be corrected by design, either -- Selig said he does not plan to suggest rule changes to restore the balance between pitchers and hitters, such as raising mounds to their pre-1969 levels.

"You can't artificially solve this problem," Selig said.

Maybe not, but enlarging the strike zone would be a start.

Walks, homers, batting average, runs -- they've all increased dramatically from last season, which produced one of the greatest offensive eruptions in major-league history.

Look at the league ERAs through May 31. Last season, they were 4.81 in the AL and 4.22 in the NL. This season, they were 5.01 in the AL and 4.54 in the NL. Truly alarming jumps.

Expansion diluted the already thin pool of pitching talent. Young pitchers fail to master their craft as they're rushed to the majors. But the bottom line is, hitters enjoy every advantage in today's game.

The hitters keep getting bigger. The parks keep getting smaller. Many in the game believe the ball is juiced. And the strike zone has shrunk to the point where there is no escape for even star pitchers like Greg Maddux.

National League umpires, in particular, seem to have narrowed the corners while failing to call the high strike, in defiance of MLB orders. The overall effect is a reduction in the size of a zone that many pitchers already considered too small.

Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson, an adviser to the commissioner's office, blames pitchers for many of the game's ills -- "We're flattering the majority of them by calling them pitchers," he sneered. "There are too many throwers in the major leagues today."

But offended as Robinson is by pitchers who lobby for called strikes on pitches six inches outside, he won't defend the zone currently "enforced" by umpires.

"I'm not against pitchers, believe me," Robinson said. "They have a beef here. They have no out."

But MLB does, with the umpires' contract expiring at the end of this season.

The umpires reacted to MLB's high-strike directive last February as if it were an affront to their dignity. And Selig, while publicly restrained in his comments, is intent on gaining authority over them next season.

"The strike zone should be what the rule book says it is," Selig said.

Is it?

"I'll leave that to you, my friend."

Still, a larger, more uniform strike zone wouldn't automatically improve pitching throughout the majors. Raising the mound would be another way of restoring the checks and balances that are as necessary in baseball as they are in the U.S. government.

"There is nothing more dramatic to me than a 1-0 or 2-1 game, when every pitch means something," Selig said.

Robinson agreed, but he said that the average fan enjoys the increase in offense, even as defense and fundamentals suffer. What bothers him is the poor quality of pitching that leads to big innings and longer games.

In any case, something needs to be done, or the records set by today's players will start to ring hollow.

Mark McGwire's 70-homer season was a historic breakthrough, his duel with Sammy Sosa a celebration of the sport. But in such an offensive age, was McGwire's 70 truly a greater achievement than Roger Maris' 61?

What if Manny Ramirez breaks Hack Wilson's single-season record of 190 RBIs, or Ken Griffey breaks Hank Aaron's career record of 755 homers?

Are we now comparing apples and oranges?

If so, none of the numbers will matter.

And part of the game's charm will be gone.

Comparing players from different eras not only makes for interesting fan arguments, but also provides a vital perspective for Hall of Fame voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

That, too, is in jeopardy now.

Four hundred homers is considered an unofficial Hall of Fame standard, but Fred McGriff and Matt Williams could reach that total, and they're not Hall of Famers. Jose Canseco could reach 500, and he's not a Hall of Famer, either.

The game evolves, and so does the definition of Hall of Famers (closers with gaudy save totals soon will present another challenge for voters). But baseball numbers are indelible for a reason. They're indelible because they mean something.

The game is stuffing itself with candy. Losing its artistry. Betraying its history.

Play ball.

Not bashball. Baseball.

Then and now

The dramatic rise in offense this season can be demonstrated by comparing league statistics through May 31 to last season on the same date.

American League 1998 1999

Batting average .272 .274

HR frequency 1 every 1 every

31.5 ABs 28.7 ABs

Walks per 9 inn. 3.59 3.78

Runs per game 10.2 10.7

ERA 4.81 5.01

National League 1998 1999

Batting average .262 .268

HR frequency 1 every 1 every

36.6 ABs 31.2 ABs

Walks per 9 inn. 3.50 3.79

Runs per game 9.2 9.9

ERA 4.22 4.54

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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