I loved playing home run derby as a kid. You needed only two players — the pitcher and the hitter. Anything not hit over the fence was an out, and we struck out a lot because every swing was for the fence. You needed only a Wiffle Ball with the cut-out holes on one side, and the thin yellow bat that always seemed to have a sweet spot.
Most of the games were in my backyard with a wooden fence. Crabapple trees were in right and left fields, meaning balls had to be hit deep and high to clear them — and then might find the telephone wires that stretched across the back. Straightaway center was the clearest shot, although it meant laying off inside pitches and waiting a split second longer to avoid pulling the ball into the trees. Those, too, would sometimes hit the telephone wires and bounce back into the yard for an out.
We would get lost in those games, extending their life into adulthood. Like big league pitchers, we could make the ball rise, drop and curve, and we would occasionally hit shots that took flight and seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Which might make me someone who would enjoy watching home run derby being played almost every night by the best players in the world. But its appeal is fading with every routine fly ball and one-handed swing that leaves the park. Call me a curmudgeon, but baseball’s credibility issue is messing with my love for the game.
I remember the fascination with the summer-long home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, and how their Paul Bunyan-esque feats went beyond baseball’s borders in terms of interest. And then Barry Bonds bested them both, leaving Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in the dust of history books. Many cried foul, and not just the purists. Performance-enhancing drugs had altered the game and the playing field. Pitchers were using them, too, in an effort to keep up in the arms’ race.
Baseball identified and punished a number of those who had cheated. Their historic feats are tainted, their Hall of Fame future in doubt.
But the game has been altered again, and this time the juice appears to be in the baseball. And no one has done anything to stop the number of records being set.
At the All-Star break, The New York Times’ Tyler Kepner wrote: “Major leaguers — who are subjected to strict in-season and off-season testing for performance-enhancing drugs — are on a pace to hit more than 6,600 home runs this season, which would obliterate the record 6,105, set in 2017. Four of the top five home run seasons in history have occurred in the last four seasons. Pitchers are striking hitters out in record numbers, too. But they want answers about the ball they’re using to do it.”
Baseball has an integrity problem that has been ignored by the stewards of the sport. The baseball is different, and so is the game. It is mirroring home run derby — lots of home runs and lots of strikeouts. There might be entertainment value in the home run derby at the All-Star Game, but not so much night after night.
In Kepner’s story, Tampa Bay right-hander Charlie Morton said: “If the ball’s different, and intentionally different, I guess the one thing I would ask is just some transparency. If the league is trying to do something different and get a different result with balls in play, I think for history’s sake and for the integrity of the game that there would be transparency.”
Home run hitters have always held a special place in the game. The Babe changed it when he began hitting more home runs than entire teams in the 1920s. His impact on the game and pop culture is described in beautiful detail in Jane Leavy’s book, “The Big Fella.”
Mickey Mantle was known for his country boy strength. Hank Aaron had a smooth-as-silk swing. Frank Robinson had his Triple Crown season, including 49 home runs, playing in Memorial Stadium. They earned their home runs and their place in the game as sluggers.
But now, everyone is doing it. The ballparks are smaller, the baseball is livelier, the emphasis is on launch angles, velocity and swinging hard on every pitch. Pitchers seem to be enamored with velocity, too, more so than location and command.
Analytics are playing a role in the changes to today’s game. There is more information for hitters and pitchers to process. More shifts. More players looking inside their caps at computer printouts. It’s information teams will continue to use in search of an edge.
Meanwhile, gifted contact hitters such as Tony Gwynn appear to be part of baseball’s past. Gwynn seemed to be able to hit the ball where he wanted, rendering a shift useless. Many of today’s hitters often don’t see the other side of the field, just the other side of the fence.
And although there might not be another Gwynn among them, today’s young hitters are talented, and strong. Watching Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette attack the ball with ferocity is fun. Watching Aaron Judge combine power with grace is a thing of beauty. Watching Cody Bellinger uncoil, Mike Trout complement brute strength with athleticism and Christian Yelich’s all-around excellence keeps us coming back for more.
But when the Yankees are leaving the park five and six times a night, it doesn’t feel right. Not because it’s the Yankees. And not because it’s against the Orioles’ inferior pitching staff. But because baseball is supposed to be more than just hitting home runs.
The record for home runs in a season was set last year by the Yankees, who hit 267. The Yankees are among four teams that will surpass that mark this season if homers continue to be hit at the same pace.
Today’s players are strong enough and good enough not to need help from baseballs that have cheapened the home run, and the game. Baseball is trying to find ways to appeal to more fans, to quicken the pace so that younger fans won’t tune out so quickly.
Maybe it’s bought into the Marvel Universe, establishing superheroes through home run power. Tony used technology, Thor had his hammer, Captain America his shield.
Baseball’s brightest young players can shine on their own. Take the Titleist out of play. Level the playing field more for pitchers and hitters. It will be a better game.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.