Baseball's destination: long gone

April 25, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

"Singles stink."

That's how Matt Stairs describes his approach to hitting, albeit in slightly more colorful language.

Major League Baseball should just dismiss any pretense, and adopt Stairs' philosophy as its new marketing slogan.

Singles stink. Homers are good. And with 5-foot-11, 175-pound shortstops making like Hank Aaron -- no offense, Mike Bordick -- there's no end in sight.

We held off until June of last season before unleashing our annual rant against offensive excess, but with the new Bud balls stitched tighter than Madonna bustiers, we can wait no longer.

Three weeks into the season, the game is an even more ridiculous state than it was in 1999.

Consider the events of the past weekend alone:

On Friday, the Anaheim Angels' Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus became the first trio to hit home runs in the same inning twice in a game.

On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Jose Canseco hit the longest home run in Tropicana Field history by crushing a 472-foot shot that was 2 feet longer than Glaus' blow the night before.

On Sunday, the New York Yankees' Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada became the first teammates to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in the same game.

These are not isolated incidents. The openings of two more home run havens (Houston's Enron Field and San Francisco's Pac Bell Park) have further inflated power numbers that already were distorted.

Camden Yards was an architectural breakthrough that changed the face of American sports. But the park's cozy dimensions have been imitated in virtually every new stadium, and the overall effect has been damaging to baseball.

Enron, the replacement for the pitching-friendly Astrodome, is 315 feet down the left-field line. Pac Bell, the replacement for windy old Candlestick, is 307 feet down the right-field line.

Detroit's spacious new Comerica Park stands as an island of sanity in a game that has lost its equilibrium, but don't expect other teams to follow suit with their new parks.

Just as Ken Griffey reportedly was unhappy with Seattle's Safeco Field -- another fair park by today's standards -- Juan Gonzalez reportedly is unhappy with Detroit's Comerica Park.

So much for, "If you build it, they will come."

Under the game's current operating philosophy, you had better build it small, or the sluggers will depart.

Then again, how do you even define a slugger anymore? The poster boy for MLB 2000 is Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Kevin Elster, who spent last season as a self-proclaimed "semi-retired slob," then strolled into Pac Bell Park and smacked three homers on Opening Day.

By now, fans are familiar with all the theories behind the game's power surge. Smaller parks. Juiced balls. Stronger hitters. Inferior pitchers. Smaller strike zones.

But if MLB won't correct what can be corrected -- softening the baseballs would be an obvious place to start -- then other measures, such as raising the mound, must be considered.

Major-league attendance declined 0.3 percent last season. Think all those four-hour games with football scores had anything to do with it?

To many fans, a 2-1 pitcher's duel is more exciting than a 12-11 slugfest. But the former is becoming increasingly rare, and the latter increasingly common.

The Toronto Blue Jays already have allowed 10 or more runs in three straight games for the first time in club history -- and also scored 10 or more runs in three straight games for the first time.

But the Blue Jays are just one example.

Last April, American League hitters averaged a home run every 29.7 at-bats and slugged .434. Through Sunday, they were averaging a home run every 25.9 at-bats and slugging .464.

The differences are just as notable in the National League.

Last April, National League hitters averaged a home run every 33.9 at-bats and slugged .416. Through Sunday, they were averaging a home run every 27.6 at-bats and slugging .437.

We're not talking incremental increases; we're talking quantum leaps. Every AL team already has scored 10 or more runs in a game. The St. Louis Cardinals set the NL record for home runs in April with eight days left in the month.

Here's how far the game has regressed:

In the mid-1980s, John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press invented the pitching statistic known as the "quality start" -- a performance in which the starting pitcher works six innings or more and allows three earned runs or less.

The statistic was criticized for lowering standards -- a six-inning, three-earned run outing equated to a 4.50 ERA, which at that time was considered decidedly mediocre. But little did anyone know, Lowe was ahead of his time.

The AL ERA last season was 4.86; this season, it's 5.39. The NL ERA last season was 4.56; this season, it's 4.80.

A quality start?

Today it's any start that lasts six innings, enabling a manager to keep his middle-relief dregs off the mound as long as possible.

This is MLB 2000, in which life imitates a video game.

Singles stink. Homers are good.

And too much is never enough.

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