Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The long balls aren't that long anymore

Who knew the decline of the home run would occur this quickly after Major League Baseball implemented drug testing amongst all of its players? The drop has been staggering, with just five players with 30 or more homers as the season reaches late August.

Such numbers so late in the season are reminiscent of baseball in the 1970s, when a 40-home-run season was a career achievement. George Foster's 52 bombs for the Cincinnati Reds in 1978 was a staggering number in that era. Just 20 years later, 52 home runs were commonplace, a rather drab number as home runs piled up like bonus points in a pinball game. Major League Baseball sought an escape from the doldrums caused by the 1994 strike-canceled season and jumped on the home run bandwagon, ignoring the fact that many of its players were injecting chemicals into their systems to enhance their performance.

When the numbers finally reached the point of ridiculousness and many of the game's top sluggers began admitting -- or were forced to admit -- their use of performance enhancing drugs, suddenly a drug testing plan was instituted. Following the embarrassing PED admission of Alex Rodriguez two years ago, it seems the home run has been viewed differently by the average fan and the game has been handed back to the pitchers.

Nearly every week this season there is a near no-hitter while players who aaccustomed to averaging 30 home runs by the All-Star Break -- David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard -- are now trying to reach that mark for the season.

Even more telling is that the league's home run leader -- Jose Bautista -- is a 29-year-old journeyman and former Rule 5 Draft Pick once returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates by the Baltimore Orioles. Bautista (pictured above after a home run) leads the Majors with 37 home runs, six more than his nearest competitor. He had just 13 last season.

Bautista's power rise is a byproduct of hard work and gradual improvement, reasons that we want all players to bash home runs. PEDs should be a solution of the past and these rather ordinary home run numbers show that. With roughly 40 games left in the regular season, there may be just two or three players reach the 40 home run mark, meaning the home run actually has more value because they become more difficult to amass.

Home runs used to be exciting because they possessed the element of surprise. But when players started bopping them at an exponential rate and more and more bombs showed up on "SportsCenter" highlight reels, they became more superficial, more like a video game and less like America's Pastime.

So it's time to appreciate Major League Baseball's return to its roots, before PEDs, before massive body armor allowed players to stand inches from the plate and before pitchers were afraid to throw inside. MLB has gone retro and the game is as real and enjoyable as its been in years.

Let's hope this era lasts.