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Baseball Is Seeing More Home Runs

April 26, 2000

With America in the throes of its biggest home-run epidemic ever, baseball commissioner Bud Selig is pleading for calm.

``Let’s just see how this plays out,″ he said.

Nearly everywhere and every moment the game is on TV, somebody goes deep. In one seven-game homestand, Toronto and two visitors divvied up 33 home runs. Earlier this month, a record 57 left the yard in one day’s worth of games. Sunday, two switch-hitting Yankees each homered from both sides of the plate. Old-timers regard these as signs of the apocalypse.

``Of course we have concerns,″ Selig said from his Milwaukee home. ``We always have concerns. But at this stage we’re just sitting back and monitoring.″

Selig just hired scientists to take a fresh look at the baseball. But Liz Daus, spokeswoman for Rawlings, the Fenton, Mo.-based sporting goods manufacturer, said that won’t yield anything new.

``They’re made in the same place with the same materials and the same way since we shifted production to our Costa Rica plant 10 years ago,″ she said.

But even as Selig talked on the telephone Tuesday night, Arizona wrapped up a 10-2 win over the Phillies with Kelly Stinnett hitting two home runs. It was the second time he managed the feat in a few days. There was a time when Stinnett had trouble cracking an egg _ provided it was thrown off a mound. In his first 168 big-league games, he had six HRs. Two years ago, he hit 11 in 92 games; then 14 in 88 games last season.

This year, Stinnett showed up for camp with 225 pounds layered on a buffed 5-foot-11 frame. He has six HRs in his last 40 at-bats.

``I worked my tail off in the offseason to get stronger and it’s paying off,″ he said.

There wouldn’t be cause for alarm if Stinnett were the only unknown closing in on proven long-ball performers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. Instead, the opposite is true.

American League leader Jermaine Dye had just 51 home runs in his first four seasons and 27 last season. He has nine already. Kansas City teammate Mike Sweeney had 41 the last four years and 22 last season. He’s got seven this month.

A few more hitters with similar numbers and stories: Tony Battista, Jose Cruz Jr., and Geoff Jenkins. Remember those names; they’re all on pace to hit 50 homers. Suddenly, the half-century club never felt less exclusive.

Steve Hirdt of Elias Sports Bureau, one of savviest statistical analysts around, has heard the whispers about this being choreographed, about Selig reckoning that if one McGwire-Sosa duel sells tickets, dozens of them will sell plenty more.

The reason Hirdt believes no one is pulling strings is because there’s no need. Now, every job in baseball pays so well that home runs are included in the job description. In the old days, only home-run hitters drove Cadillacs. These days, middle infielders give them to personal trainers for Christmas.

Hirdt sees all the usual accomplices being blamed for the power surge: juiced baseballs, shrinking ballyards, pitching thinned by expansion, even dense Canadian hardwood in bats. Only one trend genuinely troubles him.

``What strikes me as non-cyclical is that hitters have an incentive to bulk up _ more weight-training and dietary supplements _ and there’s not a corresponding advantage available to pitchers. It doesn’t help them to get much bigger and they can’t be throwing year-round.″

He pauses.

``The difference is noticeable already. If you took team pictures with the shirts off,″ Hirdt said, ``you’d have no trouble telling the 14 position players apart from the 11 pitchers.″

Last season was the game’s most prolific by any measure _ 5,528 HRs in all, an average of 2.3 per game. This season, the average is 2.6 per game, a pace that would yield 6,800 home runs.

Selig is hoping a handful of big-name pitchers will return from injury soon and bring the numbers back in line. Other people see days of warmer weather and worn-out pitchers ahead and believe they will only get more skewed. While the commissioner talks about the baseball, others think he should consider raising the mound, forcing umpires to earn their keep by calling strikes and giving pitchers a half-chance to get through an inning unscathed.

They mean that literally.

Making home runs seem dull may not be baseball’s worst problem.

The gap between mound and batter’s box is narrowing and a few pitchers already suffered broken bones after being hit with line drives.

It’s no longer just their pride that’s getting hurt.

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