Baseball has always been a lot more than just a ball game, and today there is no better symbol of the gross 90′s than home-run mania. The game seems to mean less as a competitive contest than as a circus entertainment, and so Mark McGwire’s stupendous homers are more important to even the St. Louis Cardinal organization than the fact that the team is lousy and out of the pennant race. Mark McGwire’s cuts are so uplifting that no one dares to question his statement that he stopped taking steroids at the beginning of the year. Did he really stop then? How do we know? And who else is taking them? In many other sports where performance counts more than spectacle, the governing bodies don’t take the athletes’ word on such matters, but test them for steroids, and then toss them out if they’ve taken them.
Mark McGwire’s heroics are symptomatic of a profound change in the game’s character in the 90′s. Baseball has become a hitters’ game. Pitchers’ duels are more and more rare, and 10-run totals for one side are commonplace. The mass audience likes this new game; the parks are fuller than ever and, as former Yankee Oscar Gamble said, “People love watching the home-run replays on ESPN.” Still, if you grew up loving baseball, as I did, you have to wonder about the imbalance between offense and defense, and the lesser value placed on pitching.
“There hasn’t been anything done for pitchers in the last 20 years,” former Yankee ace Goose Gossage told me. “They could save a lot of money by getting rid of pitchers altogether and putting a tee out there.”
I approached the great reliever in the clubhouse at the Old-Timers’ Day game last month to ask him whether he shares my view that the ball is juiced-that the league secretly changed its composition a few years back so as to pump up the game. “There’s no question about it, the ball is livelier,” the Goose said. “I’m around the game. I go to spring training. The balls are wound tighter. They’re hard as rocks. You throw one down on a hard surface, it bounces up, it jumps back to your hand.”
Many others I interviewed share that view.
Mel Stottlemyre, pitching coach of the Yankees: “My personal opinion is, yes [the league changed the ball]. It’s much harder. The seams are wound a little tighter.” Was it a conscious decision? “I think so, over the years. I can’t prove it. But I assume that people like offense.”
The Minnesota Twins’ manager, Tom Kelly: “I think the ball changed a few years back. You watched outfielders playing the game, they would start going back, then whoa-it’s way over their head. All of a sudden did they all get stupid and forget how to play line drives? No.”
Lyle Spatz, chairman of the baseball records committee of the Society for American Baseball Research: “I think they livened the ball. No one will ever admit to livening the ball, but it seemed to me they had to.”
League officials and Rawlings, the manufacturer of the ball, said that nothing has changed. “The specifications are the same,” said National League senior vice president Katy Feeney. What about all the players who think the ball is harder? “I’m not going to comment on that.” I called Rawlings’ P.R. department in St. Louis, and someone who gave her name as Elizabeth said, “Our ball has not been changed. The ball is currently undergoing testing. I can’t comment till the tests are finished. We want to stop all the speculation. We’re using an independent testing lab.” (And later, a company spokesman, John Hodgins, called back and said, “That is not a true statement. I have no idea why she said it.”)
You will get no argument that the game most of us grew up with, from the 60′s to 80′s, is over. Between 1993 and 1994, offensive figures took a sharp turn upwards. Bill Gilbert, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, pointed to the average number of runs per game. From the 1993 to the 1994 season, it went from 9.2 to 9.8. As of late last month, it was 10.2. Mr. Gilbert’s calculation of average home runs per game is more dramatic. It jumped from 1.78 per game in 1993 to 2.07 in 1994. Last year, it was 2.29.
It isn’t numbers but the behavior of the ball that has convinced people it’s juiced. For me it was watching B.J. Surhoff hit a line drive off the end of the bat in July that he and the announcers seemed to expect would be an out but that carried and carried more than 400 feet for a home run. Manny Ramirez did the same thing a few weeks before. In the game I grew up watching, such things didn’t happen.
At the Old-Timers’ Day game at Yankee Stadium, former players agreed. “When we play these games, the ball seems to go a lot further. It seems to really jump,” former Yankee Rookie of the Year Stan Bahnsen said. “Then you see infielders going the other way, pull hitters, and hitting the ball 420 feet. It’s got to be the ball. These batters are a lot stronger but not that much stronger.” Rick Cerone, the former Yankee catcher who now owns a minor-league team in Newark, N.J.: “The ball is different. When you see little slapping judy hitters going the opposite way for 400-foot home runs-everyone knows it is. They did it for a reason. Home runs mean attendance. I think there was a conscious decision after the strike of ’94, something to pump up the game.” Former Yankee slugger Ron Bloomberg: “Has the ball changed? Of course. The ball jumps off the bat, it goes farther faster. That’s why you see pitchers in batting practice not trying to bunt but to hit tape-measure home runs.”
I spoke with other fans who disagree. Mr. Gilbert, who works for the Houston Astros organization, said the culture of the game has changed to favor power. “There’s no embarrassment anymore for a strikeout. Players used to try and protect the plate with two strikes, now they’re swinging for the fences on every cut.” One of my in-laws, Greg Spencer, said, “Try size, strength and speed. Guys are much bigger (look at McGwire and Sosa) and to absolutely nobody’s surprise who is in the know, are juicing steroids at alarming rates. The pitching is at an all-time low in the major leagues because of expansion …”
The improvements in hitters’ conditioning are obviously important. In the old days, players worked during the off-season and stayed away from weights. Now they have personal trainers and are built like brick shithouses. “We were told that if you lift, you’d get muscle-bound,” former Yankee outfielder Tom Tresh told me. “Today kids start lifting weights in high school.”
Expansion has raised the number of clubs to 30, and expansion tends to dilute pitching talent because pitchers takes longer than hitters to develop. Bats are better made nowadays to generate head speed. Home run hitters are also advantaged by the new wave of stadiums, which have smaller outfields.
Eugene Orza, associate general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association, called my belief in the juiced-ball “mythology,” and notes the shrinking of the strike zone. To get a strike these days, a pitcher virtually has to put the ball in what Mr. Orza calls “the nitro zone,” the area below the belt where power hitters feed. Umpires used to give pitchers an outside strike till the league pressured them to pull it in, and though the rulebook calls for a strike at the armpits-the old high, hard one-umpires don’t call it. “The strike zone is down to a postage stamp,” Goose Gossage said. Indeed, there were indications during baseball’s labor dispute with the umpires that the league wants a higher strike zone so as to shift some power back to pitchers.
The problem with all these explanations is that they are not sufficient. The break in offensive statistics is too dramatic and the behavior of the baseball is too bizarre not to engender suspicion. Players have been getting stronger for years-the statistics changed in a hurry.
“In the entire decade of the 1980′s, no one hit 50 home runs,” Robert Amdur, a member of the research society who teaches political science at Columbia University, said. “Last year, four people hit 50 home runs.”
Mr. Amdur also pointed to the change in character of one of the greatest hitters in the game, Tony Gwynn. “In his first 12 years in the majors, through 1993, Gwynn averaged 5.5 home runs a year,” Dr. Amdur said, “and he went into double figures once. In the five years since 1993, he’s averaged 11.4 home runs, even missing a third of the season during the strike year. His two best home-run years are the last two years, 17 home runs in his 16th year, 16 in his 17th year. My explanation is the ball. But I can’t prove it.” (Tony Gwynn, it should be added, has a round figure, and doesn’t seem to lift weights.)
“Every generation likes to think the game used to be better when they played,” Mr. Orza responded. “Think of how many conspirators would have to be involved in juicing the ball.”
He faxed me the specifications for the ball, and Mr. Hodgins at Rawlings said these specs are so minute that it was “impossible” for the ball to change. For instance, a ball-in-progress has to be measured and weighed after each of three wrappings in wool and meet the same numbers as it has met for 23 years. Most important, when the ball is finished, it must be fired from an air cannon at nearly 60 miles per hour at a square of ash (the wood most bats are made from) and its rebound is measured. The ratio of the speed off the wood and the speed out of the cannon is called coefficient of restitution, or C.O.R.-and the C.O.R. must be between 51 percent and 58 percent.
Mr. Orza and others said the league should conduct scientific tests to settle the question. But then, who would believe the results? “Based on years of watching baseball, I think you can never underestimate the deviousness the owners will go to,” said the research society’s Lyle Spatz, who is 62.
After all, the surge in offense, in 1994, began just before baseball experienced a horrendous players’ strike that many thought would cause fans to abandon the game. The game that emerged in that year and after often looks more like pinball than baseball. “In one old-timer game, Bloomberg hit a ball 400 feet the other way and he said he didn’t even get it all,” Stan Bahnsen told me, shaking his head over the ball.
Besides, baseball has done it before. Back in the 20′s, the character of the game shifted forever, thanks to Babe Ruth, but also a livened ball. Among baseball scholars, the era before 1920 is routinely called the deadball era.
A friend, the writer Daniel Swanson, noted the parallel. “The livened ball of the early 20′s kicked off the huge bull market that dramatically increased stock values till the crash of ’29,” he said. “The live ball of ’94 helped kick off the absurd bull market of the 90′s. Now you’ve got inflated values all over society. Just look at sport utility vehicles, which are big, dangerous and unnecessary for the road.”
Daniel Swanson and I are as disturbed by S.U.V.’s as we are by the number of .300 hitters. Batting .300 was traditionally a watermark of excellence. In the late 60′s, in fact, when the balance of power was in the pitchers’ favor, Carl Yastrzemski led the American League in hitting with a .301 average. Today, there are about 80 batters in both leagues hitting better than .300. Mr. Swanson notes that there are four or five starters on the Chicago White Sox at that level. In the old days, that would mean that his team was in the race. But the White Sox are out of it.
Maybe it’s the culture of meritocracy, but sometime not very long ago excellence got defined down. A signal went out that everyone who had made the grade was thereby a winner, that everyone was excellent. So Mr. McGwire’s Cardinals are not big fat losers, and every good hitter gets to hit .300. And if they’re juicing the ball, well, all the better.