Not that I am advocating a return to the wild days of yesteryear when players juiced up to bash balls farther than hurricane-aided hits fly today, but there was something daring and reckless about the chicks-dig-the-long-ball era that’s missing. It was sort of like the Sixties in the U.S.
A home run is still a game-changer, same as it always was. A home run can still energize the crowd, same as it always did. But the sense of anticipation has altered. Not many years ago we held our breath when Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa stepped to the plate, wondering if in the next few seconds we were going to see the next pitch soar into the stratosphere.
There is nothing more electrifying than having a big blast determine the outcome of a playoff or World Series game, but it’s the regular season I am talking about. Of course home runs still happen and a walk-off shot into outer space is still going to jazz the crowd. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound first baseman is going to pound more dingers than the 5-foot-8, 165-pound infielder. That’s what we expect and that’s what we want to see.
It’s like boxing’s heavyweight division. We still want to believe the myth that the heavyweight champ is the toughest man in the world. We still want to believe that baseball’s big guys can smack 50 homers in a season and make us ooh and ahh, even without taking performance enhancing drugs.
The 2011 National League home-run crown was won by the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp with 39. That’s the lowest total since Fred McGriff’s 35 won the title in 1992. Yawn. Hitting 39 doesn’t make Kemp a home-run hitter so much as it makes him a guy who hits some home runs. Between McGriff and Kemp every NL leader hit at least 40 homers and seven times (not as often as you might think) the leader hit between 50 and 73.
For all of the attention showered on McGwire, Sosa and Barry Bonds and the drug talk swirling around their accomplishments, I find it intriguing that each man only won the NL home-run title twice apiece. So did Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols, by the way.
In the American League, Toronto’s Jose Bautista has won the last two home-run crowns, hitting a suddenly out-of-fashion (as in “He must have cheated” drumbeat) 54 in 2010 and 43 in 2011. No such proof of Bautista violating rules has surfaced. In 2009 Mark Teixeira and Carlos Pena tied for the AL lead in homers with 39 and in 2008 Miguel Cabrera smacked a league-leading 37.
Before that the last time anyone led the league with fewer than 40 homers was 1989. The number was 36 and interestingly, the perpetrator was Fred McGriff. Between McGriff and Bautista’s 54, the AL leader smashed at least 50 homers nine times with Alex Rodriguez‘s 57 for the Rangers in 2002 the high.
Rodriguez won the crown five times between 2001 and 2007. Ken Griffey Jr. led the American League four times between 1994 and 1999. When they were in their primes, you definitely did feel that in any at-bat in any game they might clobber a pitch. (Oh yeah, McGwire snuck a couple of titles in there with the Oakland A’s, too.)
Living in the backlash of the steroids era as we do I suppose it is politically incorrect to say this, but leading a league with fewer than 40 homers in a season produces a big shrug. Give me a clean 50 any time. Can’t be allowing pitchers to have all of the fun.