John Steigerwald: Home runs can no longer save baseball
“Chicks dig the long ball.”
That was the message delivered in a 1998 Nike commercial. It was the answer given by two skinny pitchers, who were asked why they were training so hard. Mark McGwire, who was on his way to 70 home runs that year and looked like an NFL offensive tackle, also was in the commercial.
We now know McGwire was taking steroids, and we also are aware the single-season home-run records set after Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961 were made possible by performance enhancing drugs.
“Chicks” should be happy these days.
Baseballs are flying out of major league parks at a record rate. So much so that the spectacular month of May put together by Josh Bell of the Pirates looks a little less spectacular.
He has one home run in June and two in his last 18 games but, before Sunday’s win in Miami, was still on pace to hit 45 this season.
That would be the second highest total in Pirates history not counting Ralph Kiner’s seven-year stretch in a shrunken Forbes Field. Willie Stargell hit 48 in 1971.
There were 28 hitters in the majors with 17 or more home runs. Seventeen after 70 games is a 39-home run pace.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the players were juiced. Now it appears the ball is juiced, and the evidence isn’t just at the big league level.
The Triple-A International League is using major league baseballs for the first time this season. At last look, Adam Duval was leading the league with 18 homers, and there were three players with 17.
Joey Meneses and Christian Stewart led the IL last season with 23.
Interestingly enough, all those steroid-aided home runs at the turn of the century were given credit for bringing back fans who were disgusted by the lockout that canceled the 1994 World Series.
Now, you have respected seam heads such as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic saying it’s no longer baseball but “Bludgeon Ball” and it’s “mind numbing.”
Who would have ever thought a home run could become “mind numbing?” It could only happen if they became commonplace.
Rosenthal points out there were 25 hitters on pace for 40 home runs. The record is 17 set in 1996, and 20 teams are on pace to hit 200 home runs. One team did that in 2013.
Major League Baseball is not in a good place. Attendance is down and people are complaining about home runs of all things.
In the past, MLB depended on the home run to perk people’s interest and get them to go to the ballpark. What do they want now? More singles?
Half of the division races are already over, and there’s a decent chance a record will be set for teams with 100 or more losses.
The tweaking of rules has already begun with changes to how relief pitchers can be used next season, but it might be too late. Baseball just isn’t cool anymore, and the long ball can’t save it.
The players are making noise about putting up a major fight in negotiating the next CBA and a strike or lockout wouldn’t be a surprise.
The old-timers will keep the game alive for the foreseeable future, but it will never have the hold on the country it had when they were growing up.
And it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group.
John Steigerwald is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.