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Just Say No to Homer Ball
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Take heart, true fans of the National Pastime. A very good thing could come out of the furor over baseball players bulking up with steroids. It might actually cause those who've been using steroids to stop. And if it's true, as it surely must be, that their steadily escalating home run bashing comes from their juiced-up condition, we could actually have a season of real baseball this year.

Think of that. A real season rather than just another re-run of a summer-long home run derby masquerading as a season.

Bam! Mark McGwire blasting 70 over the fence! Bam! Barry Bonds blasting 73! Fireworks shooting high into the outfield sky! Fans' cameras flashing! Shouting! Screaming! Noise! Lots of noise!

Sure, many fans like all those balls flying out of the park. Pretty exciting stuff. But it's also damned simplistic. It's what writer Nicholas Dawidoff described as "dumbed-down, muscle-bound entertainment" -- a version of baseball that obscures the nuances and subtleties that make the game what it is. Or should be.

Listen to what Frankie Crosetti, New York Yankee shortstop for 17 years, third base coach for 20, had to say about the impact homer-blasting has had on one of the game's most important finer points:

"When a player is on second base with no outs, it is the next batter's duty, by hook or crook, to give himself up and try to advance that runner to third base. But it is seldom that a right-handed batter will try to push the ball to right field to advance the runner. And most left-handed hitters will not try to drag or pull the ball to advance the runner. They only swing from their heels, wanting to hit the ball out of the ballpark and over the moon as well. With all these home runs being hit, it makes a lousy game of it. The great game of baseball is going down the tube from all these home runs."

Crosetti, ironically, was once a teammate of Babe Ruth, whose prodigious home run production was largely responsible for making the once rare homer a key strategic weapon -- that and Major League Baseball's attempt to revive fan interest after the stunning disclosure that the 1919 World Series had been fixed by gamblers.

Ruth, who in 1919 hit what was then a spectacular total of 29 homers, nearly doubled his output to 54 the next year, then in 1921 bashed 59. The home run derby was on. No one reached Ruth;s record totals, but homers became commonplace and baseball became Homer Ball.

It wasn't steroids that did it, either. Players weren't juicing up their bodies, unless you count the booze favored by many, Ruth most certainly included. But Major League Baseball was juicing up the baseball itself, putting a more lively rubber core in the center and otherwise making sure the ball would soar farther than it ever had, even farther than the Babe himself had ever sent it.

It was the beginning of what baseball historians like to call the Lively Ball Era. It lasted until about ten years ago, when baseball's fan-hungry team owners juiced up the ball even more.

You can also blame the steady increase in homers since then on the new stadiums with shorter, homer-friendly distances to the fences. And blame the addition of new Major League franchises that have had little choice but to sign mediocre pitchers, given the limited number of quality pitchers available. This is not to mention steroids, of course.

Hopefully, a reduction in steroid use will indeed slow down the home run bashing that has so badly corrupted baseball. But if that's not enough, we could demand that stadium fences be moved back -- preferably way back.

Better yet would be the remedy suggested by baseball historian Hermann Muelder, who thinks home run balls hit over the fence should be declared foul balls like any others hit out-of-play.

That's perfectly consistent with the rules of baseball, Muelder notes, since "in scoring it's not what happens to the ball that makes the score. It's what happens to the player." In basketball, for example, the player must put the ball through a hoop to score, but in baseball the player must cross home plate.

I'd go even further than Muelder. If I had my way, anyone hitting a ball over the fence would be automatically out. A pretty drastic step, sure. But we must take drastic steps if we are to rid the nation of the nefarious scourge of Homer Ball.

Copyright Dick Meister