In the midst of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame Weekend, in which the game celebrates past greatness, there is a passionate debate going on about the game’s present and, more to the point, its future.

Simply put, many believe the proliferation of home runs is tainting the product.

Baseball has been here before, when artificially bulked up sluggers threatened to make a mockery of the game with their ability to clout homers in record numbers.

That mess has been cleaned up; players no longer are “juiced.”

But Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander used the occasion of his start in the All-Star Game to opine in the buildup that now it’s the baseballs that are “juiced.”

Verlander implicated Commissioner Rob Manfred. Verlander noted that about a year ago MLB took an ownership interest in Rawlings, which manufactures the baseballs, that Manfred has gone on the record wanting more offense in the game, and that now we’re seeing home runs being struck at a record pace.

Conspiracy theories have been taken seriously with much less in the way of supporting evidence.

Manfred, of course, denied any connection between the Rawlings purchase and baseballs going into low-Earth orbit with incredible frequency. But the commish did say a study by scientists has found that these current baseballs have less drag, a fact for which there is no explanation offered.

It has become obvious to baseball fans that something is not right. The high-water season total for MLB homers at the end of the steroid era was 5,693 in the 2000 season. A record 6,105 homers were hit in 2017 and this year’s production is on pace to surpass that 2017 total with ease.

Watch any cable or network telecast of a game and there will be some obligatory discussion of the power surge.

A favorite explanation is that hitters are altering their swings to produce more loft and hence are hitting more home runs. 

They’ve given up on going for mere contact and instead are swinging for the fences in pursuit of homers and bigger contracts.

Just as Manfred spoke of reduced drag on the baseballs, broadcasts are filled with quantification of launch angles and exit velocities.

You tune in to relax and watch our national pastime and instead get a nightly physics lecture. Last time I checked, people weren’t lining up for physics lectures.

The critics of the abundance of home runs aren’t calling for a return to the deadball era, which ran roughly from 1900 until the 1919 season, when Babe Ruth hit what for the time was an astounding total of 29 homers.

But there is a charm to baseball that comes when runners are on the bases and the ball is in play. These days we have home runs, strikeouts and walks, with little in between.

I like the home run as much as the next guy. I also like sugar, but don’t sit down and eat it by the pound.

One of my most vivid memories was sitting along the first-base line at Three Rivers Stadium on May 30, 1971, with my dad and brother and seeing Willie Stargell hit one of the most impressive homers I’ve ever witnessed – live or on television.

Chicago Cubs left-hander Ken Holtzman was pitching and I had just about gotten done bemoaning how Stargell, a left-handed hitter, had limited prospects for the at-bat, when Stargell unloaded a ball that went into the fifth deck in right field.

The ball was a rocket, gone in an instant – before we could stand up. It was stunning that a human being could hit a baseball that far that fast.

What made it special was that it didn’t happen all the time. Sure, Stargell had a penchant for hitting spectacularly long homers. But, again, not every day. And again, he didn’t have some of his teammates, or guys on the opposition, doing the same thing on a nightly basis.

Too much of a good thing is not good. 

That point, regarding home runs, is being made in some unlikely places, including The Wall Street Journal.

It seems as if big-league baseball has morphed into a case of life imitating art. 

Back in 1999, when Nike spent more time selling shoes than trying to be politically correct, the company put forth a commercial in which Cy Young Award-winning pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were envious of attention being rained on slugger Mark McGwire.

Actress Heather Locklear was seen marveling as McGwire stroked homer after homer in batting practice. So Glavine and Maddux start working out, reading books on hitting and doing hitting drills.

Cut to a scene of them hitting balls out of the park in batting practice and Locklear strolls by acknowledging them.

“Chicks dig the long ball,” says a smug Maddux.

Fade to a black screen with white “Just do it” and then the Nike swoosh.

But wait, there’s more. Locklear then asks Maddux and Glavine if they’ve seen Mark, ruining their moment of triumph.

These days Locklear wouldn’t need to look for Mark. A couple of guys on any team could provide her home-run fix.

 

Sam Ross Jr. is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for  The Tribune-Democrat.

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