In short, baseball fans crave long ball

In era of controversy, home runs still please crowd

September 20, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

The summer seemed so iconic.

Huge men hit balls to places kids had heard about only in tall tales spun by Grandpa. Every day it seemed, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa did something those kids would be able to tell their own grandchildren about. And it was all wrapped in that blessed nugget of Nike attitude: "Chicks dig the long ball."

Barry Bonds only upped the ante three years later, in 2001, when he hit 73 homers and began mounting the first serious challenge to Hank Aaron's 755.

The popularity of the game seemed indistinguishable from the popularity of the home run.

But four years later, memories of those heady days are shrouded in ambivalence. Steroid suspicions surround each of the slugging triumvirate and in a broader sense, have undermined the offensive explosion that began in 1994. Bonds, who will face his first road crowd of the season tonight in Washington, is revered for his talent and accomplishments but loathed for his surliness and possible drug use.

"Instead of celebrating the greatest player the sport had ever produced, numerous baseball officials entered 2005 lamenting the notion that they were being handcuffed by him," wrote Boston journalist Howard Bryant in Juicing the Game, his book on the rise of offense and steroid use in the wake of the 1994 player strike. "Bonds stood as the symbol of the tainted era, of its bitter contradictions and great consequences."

His slugging compatriots haven't fared much better.

McGwire, once the Paul Bunyan of baseball, was reduced to a sodden equivocator during testimony before Congress. Sosa, whose rapid on-field decline has been apparent this summer, seemed barely able to give a full answer in English at the same hearings.

Another 500-homer man, Rafael Palmeiro, was tainted with a positive steroid test.

"Steroids exposed baseball's drift into a presumption foolishly promoted by the commissioner and club owners that fans wanted home runs, and only home runs," said Maryland state folklorist Charley Camp, who lectures on the interplay between baseball and culture.

So the questions sit out there: Do chicks still dig the long ball? Or, borrowing a line from 1940s and '50s slugger Ralph Kiner, do home run hitters still drive the Cadillacs?

The easy answer is yes. Despite the tarnishing of individual players and predictions that steroid testing would change the game drastically, home runs remain a huge part of baseball.

Home runs per game are down slightly from last year but about the same as they were in 2003 and higher than in 2002 or in that halcyon year, 1998. With less than two weeks left in the season, 23 players have 30 or more homers, down from 47 in 2000 but nothing like 1976, when only four players passed the mark, or 1988, when five cleared 30.

There may not be a Bonds or a McGwire, but the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez has hit 40 or more homers for the seventh time and at age 30, seems the next good bet to make a run at Aaron (or Bonds).

In the American League, the four highest-scoring offenses rank fifth, first, second and third, respectively, in home runs.

"I don't think the game has changed much this season," said David Vincent, a home run historian with the Society of American Baseball Research. "We have a guy with 50 [Andruw Jones] for the first time since 2002 and in the NL for the first time since 2001."

Home runs have generated excitement and naysayers since Babe Ruth made them a common part of the game in 1919.

Stars from the deadball era found Ruth gross. "The home run could wreck baseball," warned Ty Cobb, as quoted by biographer Al Stump. "It throws out a lot of the strategy and makes it fenceball."

In the 85 years since Ruth began to hit home runs, hitters - from Ted Williams to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson - have been the game's biggest stars.

The proliferation of home runs has waxed (in the 1930s and 1990s) and waned (in the late 1960s) but the long ball has never strayed far from center stage.

The reasons are obvious enough. A home run remains the easiest way to score a single run and the easiest way to accumulate many runs with one swing. Just ask Earl Weaver.

"The home run is my favorite subject," the longtime Orioles manager said in his book, Weaver on Strategy. "It's the most exciting play in baseball - the sport's knockout punch."

On a less practical level, home runs separate the pros from normal folk. Plenty of people can field a ground ball, and the best guy on a high school team could probably throw 85 mph. But hitting a ball 450 feet? Few can do it. That mystique goes back to Ruth.

"New fans bubbling into the ballparks could not begin to appreciate the austere beauty of a well-pitched game, but they thrilled vicariously to the surging erectile power of the Ruthian home run," wrote Robert Creamer in his Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. "They wanted more. They wanted runs, lots of hits and lots of runs. They wanted homers."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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