Has long ball ruined MLB?

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:26 AM ET

An essence of the mystical surrounds the home run. Nothing in baseball is viewed with quite the same awe; nothing is awaited with more anticipation and hope; nothing is dreamed about with more fervour by sandlotters from barrios south of the Rio Grande, to the alleys of the Bronx, to Mississauga backyards.

It has inspired poetry and song. Bobby Thompson brought old men to tears with it; Joe Carter brought joy to a nation with it; and Babe Ruth built a legacy with it.

But never in history has the home run become such a predominant force as it has during the past two decades. The game that was played in the 1970s, and earlier, wasn't a flashy game, it was base hits and moving runners over; it was strategic.

So what happened? We got the Bash Brothers and BALCO. We got the drug culture and denials. We got home-run kings and lab rats. We demanded, and received, instant heroes at the flick of a TV remote.

"It matches with our culture (of) instant gratification," John Eliot, a sports sociologist at Rice University in Houston, says of the home run's growth to mythic proportion. "Owners identified that (fans) want flash and glitz. Fans don't want to sit around for three hours watching a slow, strategic game. They want a show. Entertainment. Once consumers show they love a product -- next day you get a hundred of those products on the shelf."

Owners have reconfigured ball parks to better suit the home-run hitter, stadiums have been changed so fans can see it better. At the all-star game one of the most popular draws isn't the game itself, but the home-run derby. People can remember Cal Ripken won the homer derby in 1991 at the SkyDome, but they wouldn't have a clue who the starting pitchers were or who won the MVP.

"You look at most of the statistics that are published in newspapers in any sport and they're all offensive statistics," says Pat Gillick, former general manager of the Blue Jays. "It's about goals and points. They don't talk a lot about defence in sports anymore. Fans love offence. They want to be entertained, they want offence."

Nobody ever asked: But at what price?

Instead, baseball juiced the ball, although nobody has ever admitted that. It shrunk the strike zone and messed with the pitching mound -- and the more balls Barry Bonds pounded into the sea, the more fans loved it.

And the more the fans loved it, the more players wanted to hit home runs. And the more they did, the more baseball rewarded them with the big contracts.

Nobody seemed to care how players could hit the ball so far, so often. All we cared was that they did -- and we loved it.

There was nobody to suggest back in the golden summer of 1987 when the Bash Brothers gave birth to the long-ball culture that it would all blow up like a steroid-induced acne pimple.

"Drugs? We couldn't afford no drugs," baseball's home-run king, Hank Aaron, once said when asked if hitters used them in his era. Aaron's record, much like baseball's time of innocence, soon will be just a memory.

As baseball embarks on the 2005 season, Barry Bonds will emerge as the greatest home-run hitter in history, or baseball's greatest fraud. Reality lies somewhere in between.

"We've got a whole generation of athletes, given the economics of professional sport, who are cashing in on drug use," says Eliot, an expert on performance enhancement and author of the book Overachievement, which examines healthy versus unhealthy pursuit of success. "It has been a road to fame and money for a lot of athletes."

It has made Bonds the poster boy for home-run hitters and for steroid abuse. It made Mark McGwire baseball's undisputed single-season homer king, a multimillionaire, a guest at Hollywood's swankiest parties -- and two years later, injured and unemployed. Ken Caminiti went from one of baseball's most feared hitters to admitting he used steroids when he won the NL MVP, hitting 40 homers -- and died at age 41.

The home run. It is something so beautiful. It has spawned something so deadly.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, in an ESPN interview, was quoted saying: "At least half of the pro baseball players today use steroids and many of them joke about it."

Jose Canseco, in his book Juiced, due for release this month, claims he shot steroids with both McGwire -- who always has denied using them -- and Jason Giambi.

Pitcher Kenny Rogers told Sports Illustrated: "Basically, steroids can jump you a level or two. The average player can become a star and the star player can become a superstar. And the superstar? Forget it! He can do things we've never seen before!"

We have never before seen home runs hit as we have in the age of Bonds and Sammy Sosa & Co. Gillick, the architect of the Jays' championship teams of 1992 and '93 says the trend started "in the '70s when Earl Weaver used to look for the

three-run homer. But it was the '80s when this (infatuation) started."

While the home run has always been a celebrated thread that runs through the annals of baseball dating back to Babe Ruth, it wasn't until Canseco hit 31 homers and McGwire 49, in 1987, that it became an all-consuming focal point.

Curiously, if baseball ever launches an investigation into past steroid abuses the man who likely would head it is Sandy Alderson, now the executive vice-president of baseball under Bud Selig. But back in the 1980s it was the behemoths Alderson unleashed as general manager of the Oakland A's -- Canseco, McGwire, Dave Henderson -- who wreaked havoc on pitching and first elicited whispers of curious herbal supplements and strange but marvellous vitamins.

Suddenly everyone wanted to get bigger. Everyone wanted to hit home runs. And, they wanted to do it yesterday.

"I don't think there'd been much emphasis on a strength and conditioning program ... but now all 30 clubs have a strength and conditioning coach," Gillick says.

Major-league teams may not have provided the juice, but let's just say some of them didn't ask a lot of questions, either.

Gillick says the Blue Jays have had drug testing in their minor-league system for years. But, he says the problem is that a lot of players get personal trainers. Or, they work out in local gyms.

"A lot of these different steroids are pretty available at some of those places," Gillick says. "And you get some guy saying, 'Hey, take this, it's going to make you bigger, faster and quicker' ... everybody is impatient."

Not to mention, steroids work. In the entire history of baseball a player has been able to hit 60 or more homers on only eight occasions. Six of them have occurred since 1998.

Who hits the most homers per trips to the plate? Of the top 15 in the game's history, seven of them are currently playing: Bonds, Carlos Delgado, Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey Jr., Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome.

How much of this may be steroid-aided? How much of it is natural ability earned the old-fashioned way?

"There's an expression that gets floated around minor- and major-league clubhouses," says Eliot, who has worked with NASA, several U.S. Olympic athletes and baseball players, including Bubba Crosby, a young outfielder with the Yankees. "People talk about playing naked. What they mean is playing without artificial substances. A lot of times they're talking about amphetamines and speed. The vast majority of hitters take speed because it increases reaction time and their vision.

"If a pitcher is going out and he has got players who aren't taking speed he gets (annoyed) and says: 'Hey, I got my statistics on the line, you can't be playing naked when I'm on the mound.'

"It's this affectionate phrase, but the pressure is there: 'Look, either get addicted to speed or don't play.' When you've got a pitcher like Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez and they're competitive and fiery and have a lot of influence in an organization and you're a young hitter you don't have a lot of choice."

So, how many of those 133 home runs that McGwire and Sosa hit in their dramatic chase of Roger Maris' record in 1998 were legitimate? And, what of all those balls Bonds hit on to eBay? Nobody can ever tell. But, apparently there is something at work here besides an extra helping of Wheaties.

Six of the top 10 single-season home-run totals in baseball have been rung up since 1998. So, the lure to use steroids can be intense for athletes. "I work with a lot of pro athletes," Eliot says. "A lot of my work is how to pursue excellence with healthy habits, but a lot of my clients say. 'I don't feel like I can compete at this level without drug use.' "

CHEATERS

Whoever believes cheaters never prosper hasn't examined a major-league baseball team payroll. For instance, in 1992 Canseco ($4.3 million US a year) and McGwire ($4 million) were earning as much between them as the entire roster of the Cleveland Indians ($8,236,166).

During the past decade, baseball has lost a significant chunk of its middle class. In 1985 the highest 10% of the players received 25% of the salary pool -- by 2002, this percentage had gone up to 40% of the salary pool. And, who invariably dominated the top 10% of players? The power hitter.

Alex Rodriguez' 10-year, $252-million deal still stands as the gold standard. Just this winter, Carlos Beltran got $119 million; Richie Sexson got a four-year, $50-million deal; Carlos Delgado got $52 million. Meantime, almost 150 free agents, some of them solid, if unspectacular players, either remain unsigned or have accepted minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training, but no guarantees.

"Kids see the home-run hitters; they see it as the quickest way (to fame and money)," Gillick says. "The old story is that home-run hitters ride in Cadillacs and the other guys ride in Fords. More people see their increase in salary attributed to the home run so that's another reason there's a lot of emphasis on home runs -- it's an incentive for the higher salary."

Fans, Eliot notes, are far from innocent bystanders. They complain around the water coolers muttering that baseball should do something to stop steroid abuse. "Then they go home and send a cheque to Direct TV for their dish so they can watch guys hit home runs."

Corporate America has always loved big muscle. It may be more difficult to throw a no-hitter and Ichiro Suzuki may be the best hitter in baseball, but the guys who get the endorsement contracts with are the power hitters.

"We like the flash and glitz. America likes Hollywood," Eliot says, "We've got to ask ourselves as a society and as fans, what do we want? Do we want a circus act? Do we want big, flashy home runs with artificial gladiators or do we want old-fashioned, all-natural athletics?"

Until now, baseball, television, the corporations and the fans have voted for the flash. Only after U.S. President George W. Bush shook a warning finger at the game has baseball decided to finally invoke mandatory drug testing.

"Now the union is co-operating," Gillick says. "But only because of the threat from the federal people who have told them to clean up your act."

It comes too late to prevent the two-headed monster that is Barry Bonds from staring down at us from a precipice once held only by Aaron.

Normally, Bonds' accomplishment would deserve celebration. But these are not normal times. "We shouldn't be celebrating because we're forcing kids to make bad decisions," Eliot says. "We're increasing the pressure for young athletes who see sports as their avenue to success.

"You can only hope that people will stand up and say this is a negative thing. These guys are circus exhibits."


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