In short, game needs long ball

In era of steroids, controversy, fans still crave home run hitters

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, seems the ultimate vessel for mixed feelings - 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. Commentators seem desperate to herald a new era of better pitching and more versatile offense.

"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.

"Because of how it changes ball games, it is still the big hit and the big attention-getter." said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant.

Overall, 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 leading Most Valuable Player candidates in each league are still home run hitters.

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). His Boston Red Sox rival, David Ortiz, can't run and usually doesn't play in the field, but is glorified for his game-ending homers.

In the National League, Andruw Jones became the first player in three years to hit 50 or more homers, and Albert Pujols is about to pass 40 for the third year in a row despite the fact he's only 25.

The best offenses still revolve around power and walks.

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

The correlation is less strong in the National League, but the three highest-scoring teams rank among the top eight 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 for the first time since 2002 and in the NL for the first time since 2001."

Home runs remain at the heart of television highlight packages, and when Bonds homered into McCovey Cove on Sunday, the usual pack of kayakers swarmed the ball.

Any sense that home runs are declining may exist because no one is chasing the single-season record and because Bonds has been unable to pursue the career record.

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.

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