Sports Long Ball Sally

The record-break­ing bar­rage of home runs has ma­jor lea­guers climb­ing the fences

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THIS PAST SUM­MER SAW NO short­fall of long balls: Ma­jor le ague hit­ters wal­loped 6,105 round-trip­pers, e clips­ing the sin­gle-sea­son record by nearly 10 per­cent. That bar­rage of bom­bas­tic blasts put Philadel­phia Phillies rookie Rhys Hoskins at a dis­ad­van­tage. Hoskins swat­ted 18 home runs in his first 34 games, the quick­est to that to­tal in ma­jor league his­tory. If this were any other year, that would be news, but in 2017 Hoskins’s feat is lit­tle more than a Philadel­phia story.

Records are now a weekly event. On Septem­ber 22, Cody Bellinger of the Los An­ge­les Dodgers broke the Na­tional League record for home runs by a rookie with his 39th, which is where he fin­ished. (Bellinger’s fa­ther, Clay, by the way, played three full ma­jor league sea­sons and amassed just 12 home runs.) Three days later, Aaron Judge of the New York Yan­kees wiped out the ma­jor league rookie record for fourbag­gers by clout­ing his 50th. He fin­ished the sea­son with 52.

Gian­carlo Stan­ton of the Mi­ami Mar­lins redi­rected 59 pitches be­yond out­field perime­ters. Only two biglea­guers out­side of the tainted trio of Barry Bonds, Mark Mcg­wire and Sammy Sosa (turn-of-the-mil­len­nium

steroidal slug­gers) reached 60: Roger Maris (61) and Babe Ruth (60).

Slug­gers used to strut to­ward home plate—or trot around the bases—armed with im­pos­ing noms de guerre such as “the Sul­tan of Swat” or “Ham­merin’ Hank.” Nowa­days, “Scooter” will suf­fice. On June 6, Ryan “Scooter” Gen­nett, a 5-foot10-inch sec­ond base­man for the Cincin­nati Reds, equaled a ma­jor league mark by hit­ting four home runs in one game. Com­pare Gen­nett with ’50s Yan­kee short­stop Phil “Scooter” Riz­zuto, who failed to hit four home runs in nine of his 13 Hall of Fame sea­sons. Our na­tional pas­time’s lon­grange ca­pa­bil­i­ties this year would make a Korean dic­ta­tor blush.

It’s look­ing as if the two open­ing­day home runs San Fran­cisco Gi­ants pitcher Madi­son Bum­gar­ner smote—the first pitcher ever to do so on open­ing day in a league that dates back to 1876—was some kind of har­bin­ger. But why balls are fly­ing over walls at an un­prece­dented pace re­mains un­clear. Mark Ste­wart, co-au­thor of Long Ball: The Leg­end and Lore of the Home Run, has a par­tial ex­pla­na­tion: “There’s no shame in strik­ing out any­more. It’s a lot eas­ier to get good wood on the ball with a full, con­fi­dent swing.” It’s also a lot more likely that you will strike out. The 23 high­est (worst?) sin­gle-sea­son strike­out to­tals by hit­ters in the game’s 141 sea­sons have all come since 2004. The Yan­kees’ Judge, a 6-foot-7-inch phe­nom who may be voted the league’s MVP as a rookie, whiffed a ma­jor league-high 208 times this sea­son. Not that his scores of Yan­kee fans—who don black robes and pro­claim “All rise!” as he strides to the plate—care.

Mighty Casey keeps strik­ing out, but there is no joy lost in Mudville be­cause he is likely to have a mul­ti­homer game to­mor­row. Hall of Famer Reg­gie Jack­son, who as a slug­ger in the 1970s would ap­pear to corkscrew him­self into the earth on missed swings, is renowned for be­com­ing the first ma­jor lea­guer to hit three home runs in a World Se­ries game. Fewer base­ball fans know that Jack­son is base­ball’s all-time strike­out king, with 2,597. Like Mr. Oc­to­ber cares. “Fans don’t boo no­bod­ies,” Jack­son once said.

Ste­wart be­lieves that ev­ery home run be­gins with a pitch, and as ma­jor league hit­ters grow big­ger and stronger, Ste­wart be­lieves that the men stand­ing on the mound are com­plicit in the home run uptick. “Pitch­ing is very much like ju­jitsu, where the ob­ject is to get your op­po­nent off bal­ance,” says Ste­wart. “For a pitcher, that means mix­ing speeds or hav­ing a qual­ity se­condary pitch [e.g., a slider]. Fewer and fewer pitch­ers ap­proach their craft this way. It’s all about throw­ing heat.”

To put it in box­ing terms, no one throws jabs any­more; it’s all about hay­mak­ers. In the dead ball era, which ended roughly the same time as World War I, hit­ters ap­proached at-bats de­fen­sively and strik­ing out was hu­mil­i­at­ing (hence the dra­matic ten­sion of Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat,” pub­lished in 1888). In the 1915 World Se­ries, Phillies out­fielder Gavvy Cra­vath, who would lead the Na­tional League in home runs six times, came to bat with the bases loaded. His man­ager gave him the bunt sign; Cra­vath bunted into a dou­ble play. Such an or­der be­ing given—or fol­lowed—a cen­tury later is unimag­in­able. The di­a­mond has mor­phed into a driv­ing range. “Now you’ve got bat­ting in­struc­tors hav­ing dis­cus­sions about ‘launch an­gle,’” says Ste­wart, laugh­ing, as if base­ball re­ally is rocket sci­ence.

The change was stoked, as were so many as­pects of base­ball, by Babe Ruth, “the first guy to take such hu­mon­gous swings that when he missed, he’d of­ten lose his bal­ance and top­ple to the ground,” says Ste­wart. “But such was the Babe’s ta­lent that the fans cheered al­most as bois­ter­ously when he fell as when he hit one out.”

Fans don’t boo no­bod­ies. Nor do they cheer them.

Our na­tional pas­time’s long-range ca­pa­bil­i­ties this year would make a Korean dic­ta­tor blush.

BENCH MARK Yan­kee Sta­dium in New York (left) where Aaron Judge (be­low) broke Mark Mcg­wire’s 1987 rookie home run record on Septem­ber 25.

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