... baseballs have been juiced or altered in some way to travel farther than they used to. It's not the first time that's happened.
"Nothing to see here. Please disburse."
Those words were famously spoken by Leslie Neilsen as Lieutenant Frank Drebin of Police Squad, while standing in front of an exploding fireworks factory in the movie, "The Naked Gun." Or were they said by baseball commissioner Rob Manfred when he was asked about baseballs being juiced?
In "The Naked Gun" they were deliberately used as to get a laugh. Manfred didn't use them as a laugh line -- not on purpose, anyhow. Okay, maybe the commissioner didn't exactly say those same words, but that's what he meant in denying that baseballs have in any way been doctored. Are we to believe him or our lyin' eyes?
In 2017 there was a sudden eruption of home runs in the major leagues. 6,150 of them were hit, obliterating the previous one season record of 5,693, hit in 2000, the height of the Steroids Era. Then, after dropping back a bit to 5,558 hit last year, they are on pace in 2019 to hit a new high of 6,668. That seems to indicate something a little fishy's going on, doesn't it?
That evidence is nothing compared to what's happening this year in the International League and the Pacific Coast League. They are baseball's two triple A leagues, only one rung below the majors. According to a story by The Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond the two leagues decided to switch to major league balls this year rather than the minor league balls they have traditionally used and that are still used at all other levels of organized baseball. Guess what? Home runs at the triple A level are seeing a bit of a spike this season. That is, if you call a home run increase of 2,000 (that is not a misprint) a spike. Explosion might be a better word. That's what the two leagues are on a pace to hit, 2,000 more homers this year than last, an increase of 60 percent.
It can't be all due to launch angles, or uppercut swings; they might result in an incremental increase, but certainly nothing near 60 percent. MLB has opined that the balls have less drag on them which would tend to cause them to travel farther. In any case, the balls are different and livelier than they used to be.
Major League Baseball has said it is committed to investigating Rawlings, the long-time baseball manufacturer, to get to the bottom of this. The owner of Rawlings should be brought to account for -- wait a minute. Major League Baseball is the owner of Rawlings. What that means is that MLB is going to investigate -- wait for it -- MLB. It's the first time anything of this magnitude has happened since the Nixon administration vowed to get to the bottom of that Watergate nonsense.
Stay tuned for any bombshell disclosures, but don't hold your breath.
Meanwhile, strikeouts seem to be on the rise. Have you noticed? Last season, for the first time in history, there were more strikeouts in the majors than base hits (41,207 to 41,018) This year the disparity will be greater. Striking out a lot is a trend that has been going on for years, but the pace is rapidly picking up. It used to be that 100 K's in a season was a lot -- a whole lot. Nowadays, not so much. The Red Sox, for example, have four players who have already exceeded the century mark and four more who are on a pace to reach it by the time the season ends. That's just about the entire lineup; Betts, Devers, Bogaerts, DJ Martinez, Benintendi, Vazquez, Chavis, and Bradley, Jr.
What does this simultaneous increase in home runs and strikeouts mean for baseball in the long run? My instinct is to shake my head sadly and say, "This is the beginning of the end for the grand old game. It's all downhill from here." But then I remember saying the same thing when the designated hitter rule went into effect back in 1973 (although, to be honest, I don't remember saying or even thinking it in the years when Big Papi stepped up to the plate as DH). I said it again when instant replay to challenge close plays came along. I clearly remember thinking what a tragic mistake Red Sox ownership was making when they decided to put seats on the top of the Green Monster. Then I showed up at Opening Day in 2003 and there they were, looking like they'd always belonged there. Now, when I see old pictures of the wall with just the net on top, it looks naked.
Baseball not only survived those changes, it has thrived. I was wrong to have gotten so upset whenever change reared its ugly head. It wasn't so ugly, after all.
So baseballs have been juiced or altered in some way to travel farther than they used to. It's not the first time that's happened. A century ago, when Babe Ruth opened the eyes of those in charge of the game by hitting home runs by the bucketful, they decided to reconfigure the ball so that others could do the same thing. It was a strategy that not everyone agreed with. The John McGraws and the Ty Cobbs of the day lamented that the game was being ruined. "The end is near," they dolefully preached. A hundred years later it turns out that the end wasn't near at all.
But the doomsday theorists still abound. They point to the fact that attendance is down in baseball. It is, but it is in other sports, too, even in football. Many college football venues, which have traditionally never sold beer and wine during games (after all, selling booze to college kids, the very kids they are charged with educating, is not a good look). But now, in hopes of filling empty seats, a lot of them are selling suds no matter how it looks. Besides, it's expensive to go to a game these days, in some cases it's very expensive. Not only that but TV revenue has long since taken over from attendance at games as the straw that stirs the financial drink.
So I am not going to be like the boy in the fable, the boy who cried wolf so often that no one believed him; I am not predicting the demise of baseball. Although, come to think of it, the boy in the fable was eventually right, the wolf really was at the door.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.
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