By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
NOTHING TO SEE HERE
“Nothing to see here. Please disburse.”
Those words were famously spoken by Leslie Neilsen as Lieutenant Frank Drebin of
Police Squad while standing in front of an exploding fireworks factory in the movie,
“The Naked Gun.” Or were they said by baseball commissioner Rob Manfred when he
was asked about baseballs being juiced?
In “The Naked Gun” they were deliberately used as to get a laugh. Manfred didn’t use
them as a laugh line – not on purpose, anyhow. Okay, maybe the commissioner didn’t
exactly say those same words, but that’s what he meant in denying that baseballs have in
any way been doctored. Are we to believe him or our lyin’ eyes?
In 2017 there was a sudden eruption of home runs in the major leagues. 6,150 of them
were hit, obliterating the previous one season record of 5,693, hit in 2000, the height of
the Steroids Era. Then, after dropping back a bit to 5,558 hit last year, they are on pace in
2019 to hit a new high of 6,668. That seems to indicate something a little fishy’s going
on, doesn’t it?
That evidence is nothing compared to what’s happening this year in the International
League and the Pacific Coast League. They are baseball’s two triple A leagues, only one
rung below the majors. According to a story by The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond
the two leagues decided to switch to major league balls this year rather than the minor
league balls they have traditionally used and that are still used at all other levels of
organized baseball. Guess what? Home runs at the triple A level are seeing a bit of a
spike this season. That is, if you call a home run increase of 2000 (that is not a misprint) a
spike. Explosion might be a better word. That’s what the two leagues are on a pace to hit,
2000 more homers this year than last, an increase of 60%.
It can’t be all due to launch angles, or uppercut swings; they might result in an
incremental increase, but certainly nothing near 60%. MLB has opined that the balls have
less drag on them which would tend to cause them to travel farther. In any case, the balls
are different and livelier than they used to be.
Major League Baseball has said it is committed to investigating Rawlings, the long-time
baseball manufacturer, to get to the bottom of this. The owner of Rawlings should be
brought to account for – wait a minute. Major League Baseball is the owner of Rawlings.
What that means is that MLB is going to investigate –wait for it – MLB. It’s the first time
anything of this magnitude has happened since the Nixon administration vowed to get to
the bottom of that Watergate nonsense.
Stay tuned for any bombshell disclosures, but don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, strikeouts seem to be on the rise. Have you noticed? Last season, for the first
time in history, there were more strikeouts in the majors than base hits (41,207 to 41,018)
This year the disparity will be greater. Striking out a lot is a trend that has been going on
for years, but the pace is rapidly picking up. It used to be that 100 K’s in a season was a
lot – a whole lot. Nowadays, not so much. The Red Sox, for example, have four players
who have already exceeded the century mark and four more who are on a pace to reach it
by the time the season ends. That’s just about the entire lineup; Betts, Devers, Bogaerts,
DJ Martinez, Benintendi, Vazquez, Chavis, and Bradley, Jr.
What does this simultaneous increase in home runs and strikeouts mean for baseball in
the long run? My instinct is to shake my head sadly and say, “This is the beginning of the
end for the grand old game. It’s all downhill from here.” But then I remember saying the
same thing when the designated hitter rule went into effect back in 1973 (although, to be
honest, I don’t remember saying or even thinking it in the years when Big Papi stepped
up to the plate as DH). I said it again when instant replay to challenge close plays came
along. I clearly remember thinking what a tragic mistake Red Sox ownership was making
when they decided to put seats on the top of the Green Monster. Then I showed up at
Opening Day in 2003 and there they were, looking like they’d always belonged there.
Now, when I see old pictures of the wall with the just net on top, it looks naked.
Baseball not only survived those changes, it has thrived. I was wrong to have gotten so
upset whenever change reared its ugly head. It wasn’t so ugly, after all.
So baseballs have been juiced or altered in some way to travel farther than they used to.
It’s not the first time that’s happened. A century ago, when Babe Ruth opened the eyes of
those in charge of the game by hitting home runs by the bucketful, they decided to
reconfigure the ball so that others could do the same thing. It was a strategy that not
everyone agreed with. The John McGraws and the Ty Cobbs of the day lamented that the
game was being ruined. “The end is near,” they dolefully preached. A hundred years later
it turns out that the end wasn’t near at all.
But the doomsday theorists still abound. They point to the fact that attendance is down in
baseball. It is, but it is in other sports, too, even in football. Many college football venues,
which have traditionally never sold beer and wine during games (after all, selling booze
to college kids, the very kids they are charged with educating, is not a good look). But
now, in hopes of filling empty seats, a lot of them are selling suds no matter how it looks.
Besides, it’s expensive to go to a game these days, in some cases it’s very expensive. Not
only that but TV revenue has long since taken over from attendance at games as the straw
that stirs the financial drink.
So I am not going to be like the boy in the fable, the boy who cried wolf so often that no
one believed him; I am not predicting the demise of baseball. Although, come to think of
it, the boy in the fable was eventually right, the wolf really was at the door.