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ALL-STAR GAME

Power and Glory

Baseball: Many theories have been developed on why home runs are going out in bunches, but no one really knows for sure.

July 09, 2002|LANCE PUGMIRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ted Williams ended his career in 1960 by hitting a home run into Fenway Park's right-field seats in his final at-bat, the "Splendid Splinter" stood third on the all-time home run list, and his total of 512 made him one of only four members of the 500 home run club.

Nearly 42 seasons later, membership in the group has climbed to 17, and the latest additions, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, have maintained the exclusive feel of the club.

But that distinction appears temporary. In this homer-happy era, when fan interest in the All-Star home run derby has come to rival the popularity of the All-Star game, baseball is undergoing an unquestionable power transformation.

Statistics of baseball legends are being surpassed with unprecedented quickness and several never-before-seen developments have left the game's historians struggling for explanations, such as how to interpret the fact that four players--Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff and Ken Griffey Jr.--are on pace to join the 500-homer club within a year.

What's going on? That's a loaded question, with an answer shrouded by innuendo attached to the allegations and admissions of steroid use and obscured by multiple theories.

Has the quality of pitching been depleted too severely by expansion? Are new, small ballparks to blame for big, warped numbers? Is someone doctoring the baseballs or bats?

"Historically, strange things are happening," said Seymour Siwoff, the president and a 40-year employee of the official major league statistician company, Elias Sports Bureau Inc. "The story here is, what has happened to baseball? How did this suddenly happen? I have no answer. There is conjecture about many things, but not one of them is conclusive."

Siwoff speculates the ball is being manufactured differently and, in the absence of steroid testing, says it is unfair to disparage players such as Bonds and Sosa with unfounded accusations while failing to appreciate their magnificent hand-eye coordination.

But Siwoff, one of baseball's most respected number-crunchers, admits baseball's statistics reveal a mighty story.

Last week, a new major league record was established when 62 home runs were hit in one day.

The number of players who've produced 30-homer seasons bulged from 13 players in 1986 to 47 in 2000.

Of the top 100 home run hitters of all time, 20 are active players.

When Bonds was 29, he led the NL with 46 homers in 1993. At 37, he established the single-season record with 73 homers last year.

"The game has certainly been affected by home runs. There are more long home runs and guys are certainly moving up the all-time list faster," said Jerome Holtzman, Major League Baseball's historian and a Hall of Fame baseball writer from Chicago.

"But I don't care if guys are taking steroids or not. The numbers are genuine. You can't eliminate them. You can't put an asterisk next to them, can you? More hitters are bigger and stronger these days. If they are taking these drugs and if they want to risk their bodies so they can hit 20 more homers a year, that's their decision."

Spokespersons for several members of the 500-homer club, including Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson, said those players are refusing to answer questions about the presence of steroids in baseball and if they believe their legacies are being diminished by this power surge.

One member's spokesman explained: "If they're not banning it, there's really nothing he can say about it. He's not pleased that it's going on. He didn't do it.

"But for him to say anything about it would make him look like he was crying about it, and he refuses to do that."

Siwoff said Williams deserves to be eternally regarded as a great of the game, regardless of his drop from No. 3 to No. 12 on the home run list since his retirement.

"This is a guy who was so superior to so many others," Siwoff said. "It's unfair to number them one, two or three. Just call him a great hitter, the greatest student of the game and the art of hitting ever. He was a virtuoso. Not only was he great, he understood why he was great.

"In my lifetime, Mickey Mantle hit a ball farther than any player I've seen and Jimmie Foxx could hit the ball a mile too. Those guys like that will remain legendary."

The 60-home run barrier, untouched for nearly 37 years after Roger Maris hit his record 61 in 1961, has been eclipsed six times since 1998--three times by Sosa, twice by McGwire and Bonds' 73.

In 1977, Cincinnati Red outfielder George Foster hit 52 homers. No one hit 50 again until Detroit first baseman Cecil Fielder in 1990. There have been 15 50-homer seasons since 1995 and three players, Dodger outfielder Shawn Green, Colorado first baseman Todd Helton and Cleveland first baseman Jim Thome, hit 49 homers last year.

Siwoff points to 1987 as the beginning of the power era. In 1986, there were 18,545 runs scored and 3,813 home runs hit. In 1987, runs increased to 19,883 and homers spiked to 4,456.

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