Lead­ing OFF

A new brand of base­ball may have given a sport its re­birth

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - NEWS - Dan Bick­ley Colum­nist The Ari­zona Repub­lic USA TO­DAY Net­work

Base­ball is no longer a dy­ing flame. The sport is so hot that it now re­quires leather gloves and oven mitts.

A wist­ful gen­er­a­tion ap­plauds. Even if we don’t rec­og­nize the game any­more.

In the past two sea­sons, the Chicago Cubs have bro­ken a curse and the Hous­ton Astros scored a ma­jor vic­tory for an­a­lyt­ics. The re­birth of Amer­ica’s pas­time has been fu­eled by home runs, ad­vanced met­rics, tricked-up base­balls, revamped swings and other ac­cou­trements of evo­lu­tion.

Tele­vi­sion view­er­ship tells a pow­er­ful story. The past two World Se­ries scored the high­est-rated Game 7’s in his­tory. The Astros and Los An­ge­les Dodgers pro­duced two of the great­est games on record, in­clud­ing a night when five home runs were struck in ex­tra in­nings alone.

Pitcher’s du­els are now like an­tique clocks. Sac­ri­fice bunts are con­sid­ered a waste of re­sources. Stolen bases are down. Strike­outs are no longer a shame­ful scourge. De­fen­sive shifts are so ef­fec­tive that hit­ting the ball on the ground is con­sid­ered a fast pass to the mi­nor leagues.

“This is a fun time for Ma­jor League Base­ball,” Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs pres­i­dent and CEO Der­rick Hall says. “The game could be chang­ing be­fore our very eyes. And in a good way.”

As the game has shifted from weather-worn scouts to Har­vard MBA’s, we’ve been in­un­dated with in­for­ma­tion and al­go­rithms. We’ve learned about WAR, WHIP, OPS and spin rates, mak­ing barstool con­ver­sa­tions cum­ber­some. But the home run re­mains the sex­i­est statis­tic in sports, re­lat­able on ev­ery level. And they're at the root of the cur­rent re­nais­sance.

Over the past sea­son, Ma­jor League Base­ball play­ers compiled 6,105 home runs, smash­ing a record set dur­ing the so­called Steroid Era. Be­fore 2017, the World Se­ries had never staged a game where more than six play­ers hit home runs. That changed when eight play­ers went deep in Game 2, and another seven in Game 5.

The sport has shifted so dra­mat­i­cally that J.D. Martinez was once re­leased by the Astros be­fore he started swing­ing for the fences, while Ari­zona na­tive Cody Bellinger hit only one home run in his prep ca­reer at Chan­dler’s Hamil­ton High School. That blast hit the top of the fence and bounced over.

There were 117 play­ers who hit 20 or more home runs in 2017. There were 140 play­ers who struck 100 or more times. Small ball is dead and no lead is safe in to­day’s game, when mo­men­tum shifts are one swing away.

That keeps peo­ple in­ter­ested and watch­ing from the edge of the couch, even when games last be­yond four hours. The Di­a­mond­backs were among a hand­ful of teams that un­veiled in­ex­pen­sive ticket pro­mo­tions, ex­pos­ing young con­sumers to a new brand of base­ball. The con­flu­ence could spark a grass­roots re­vival on Lit­tle League di­a­monds across Amer­ica, fields that rep­re­sent a safe haven from con­cus­sions and a chance for kids to ex­pe­ri­ence the great­est thrill in ath­letic com­pe­ti­tion:

The glory that comes with hit­ting a ball over the fence.

“We’ve watched some of the great­est games ever seen in the his­tory of base­ball,” Hall said. “It’s be­cause of the come-frombe­hind vic­to­ries. And that’s be­cause of the home run.”

There is a level of sus­pi­cion at­tached to the cur­rent trend trig­ger­ing the re­birth of base- ball. Pitch­ers have com­plained about base­balls that are slicker, harder to ma­nip­u­late and fly­ing out of the park with alarm­ing ve­loc­ity. While MLB has dis­counted th­ese con­spir­acy the­o­ries, some­thing has changed, and some­thing has tilted the play­ing field con­sid­er­ably. And if the ball has been juiced, it means the fire­works show of 2017 is both man­u­fac­tured and fraud­u­lent.

But the emo­tion is real and sus­tain­able. The flurry of home runs in 2017 cre­ated en­ergy and ex­cite­ment, help­ing play­ers break down their stoic walls and their un­writ­ten rules. The post­sea­son was full of ex­u­ber­ant hit­ters dis­play­ing great pas­sion as they rounded the bases.

Maybe it’s OK to cel­e­brate once the play­offs ar­rive, when the mar­gin for er­ror does not al­low re­tal­i­a­tion from bruised pitch­ers. The Di­a­mond­backs’ Archie Bradley al­most blew the roof off Chase Field fol­low­ing a post­sea­son triple. The Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig flipped his bat after a bloop sin­gle, while Joc Ped­er­son made a money ges­ture with his fin­gers while round­ing third base. It all added to the car­ni­val at­mos­phere, when no­body com­plained about play­ing the game the right way.

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of of­fense, home runs and come-from-be­hind vic­to­ries have helped the sport move past one of its big­gest in­ter­nal bat­tles, the tug-ofwar be­tween old-school types who de­mand that play­ers act like they’ve been there be­fore, and a new gen­er­a­tion that wants to party like it’s 1999.

It's about time the lat­ter mind­set pre­vails. If there’s any­thing fans love more than home runs, it’s ath­letes who aren’t afraid to show per­son­al­ity and pas­sion. That's the big­gest les­son to emerge from the 2017 sea­son, a year when base­ball be­came en­ter­tain­ing once again.

“We’ve ben­e­fit­ted from the World Se­ries matchups over the past two years,” Hall says. “And when you cou­ple that with the over-the-top show of emo­tions, where it felt like a Lit­tle League World Se­ries after ev­ery home run … that con­nects with a younger gen­er­a­tion.

“This might be a chal­lenge for tra­di­tion­al­ists who aren’t used to see­ing this kind of base­ball. But it’s def­i­nitely a new chap­ter, and I think we saw the birth of emo­tion. Play­ers seemed to be hav­ing fun. Per­son­al­i­ties are shin­ing through. It’s got­ten to the point where that stuff is con­sid­ered ac­cept­able and ex­cit­ing. And as long as it’s not of­fen­sive or con­sid­ered too in­y­our-face for the fans or the op­po­si­tion, it’s a great thing for the game.”

It couldn't come at a bet­ter time for MLB, espe­cially with the NFL an­ger­ing fans and trending in the wrong di­rec­tion. It also proves the en­dur­ing power of Amer­ica's pas­time, a sport that once seemed to be dig­ging its own grave.


Jose Al­tuve (27) cel­e­brates after hit­ting a solo home run against dur­ing the tenth in­ning in Game 2 of the World Se­ries, one of five ex­tra-in­ning homers in the game.

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