Baseball driven by more than HRs

June 22, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

BASEBALL historians refer to 1900-1919 as the Dead Ball Era because of its dearth of offense, and they might eventually call the past two decades the Juiced Ballplayer Era.

Scoring soared. Home runs flew out of parks at record-setting rates. You saw it, right?

Until recently, the unprecedented power show was believed to be attributable primarily to expansion, poorer pitching, hitter-friendly new parks and better conditioning techniques - all valid explanations, even in hindsight.

But it seems clear now that steroids played perhaps the biggest role.

All you have to do is watch old games on ESPN Classic to know that current players were swelling up like the Michelin Man, their arms and upper bodies pumped up to hit soaring dingers into the distance.

But perhaps the best evidence of the key role that steroids played is coming now, just as the crackdown on their use heats up.

Home runs and scoring are down this season - per-game averages for both are lower in 2005 than in any of the prior three seasons, according to ESPN.com.

True, those averages are now rising along with June's higher temperatures, while the Texas Rangers are on a pace to hit 262 homers as a team, close to the single-season major league record of 264 set by the 1997 Seattle Mariners. Throughout the majors, homers are still being hit much more often than in the 1960s and 1970s.

We're a long, long way from Dead Ball Era II.

Yet it does appear the emphasis on power and pecs has peaked, and the Juiced Ballplayer Era is over.

No major league player is going to hit 70 homers this season. Not even 60. Maybe not even 50.

The Boston Red Sox are probably going to lead the American League in scoring again, but they're on a pace to produce 57 fewer runs than a year ago.

And if the statistical evidence doesn't convince you, just check out the shrunken bodies of, ahem, certain players.

The much-maligned steroid testing policy implemented by Major League Baseball in 2004 might not have much bite - commissioner Bud Selig already wants to toughen it - but it does seem to have scared a lot of players into throwing away their juice bottles.

And the major leagues should only continue to get cleaner as the testing policy gains teeth, as it likely will.

What does this mean for the game itself? A lot in the long run. Dare we say, a whole lot.

Less scoring means there'll likely be more emphasis on pitching, defense and fundamentals. Remember them?

And fewer home runs should mean more emphasis on producing runs in other ways, like with speed, bunts and hit-and-run plays.

Sounds good to me.

The game has moved way too far out on the ledge of emphasizing fence-busting swats above all else, rendering irrelevant some of its most attractive subtleties.

A correction isn't just warranted, it's badly needed. Any good high school coach can tell you how hard it has become to teach the finer points to kids whose eyes glaze over at the thought of pounding balls into the distance, like the stars they see on SportsCenter. It's hard to compete with that.

If the power show in the major leagues dims even just a little, there's a better chance of fundamentals becoming more important again throughout the entire sport.

It's funny that Selig and the game's other keepers now apparently are willing to tolerate a more subtle product after pointedly averting their eyes from any evidence of steroid use while using the power show to regrow their game in the wake of the 1994-1995 labor dispute. And you wonder why people get cynical.

But Selig and his keepers finally have gotten religion on steroids - shockingly, just as the public has, too.

They'll be surprised to discover that fans enjoy the game just as much with fewer home runs.

Of course, as always in baseball, the situation isn't nearly as simple as it appears. Some believe factors other than steroid testing have led to the falloff in homers and scoring. Better pitching. The injuries that have sidelined sluggers such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and others for part or all of the season.

STATS, Inc., the major league statistical service, reported "there is little in the current statistics to suggest that the new testing program for performance-enhancing drugs has led to a significant drop in power totals when looking at the previous four seasons."

On the other hand, shrinking bodies, reduced (or stalled) offensive numbers and the desire for stronger testing leave little doubt which direction the game is headed, however incrementally.

Away from power shows. Back toward balance and basics.

Not a moment too soon.

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