In this year of the check-swing home run, the most risible baseball anachronism has to be the All-Star game’s home run derby.
Because that’s pretty much what baseball is these days.
I don’t want to serve up a stat salad with sour dressing, but here’s the gist of it: at the All-Star break, major league players had hit 3,691 dingers, which puts them on a pace to hit nine percent more than the record-breaking number in 2017. My guess is that the record gets broken by far more than 10 percent, given the return of a lot of big bombers from the IL and the inevitability of pitching arms breaking down as summer limps toward autumn.
We’ve had home run spurts before, but they seemed to coincide with the expanding skulls of guys such as Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. But this time, players are seemingly doing it without steroids coursing through their veins. A mixed blessing, for sure.
If you were among the paltry number of viewers who watched this year’s All-Star game — the TV ratings were the lowest ever — there’s a pretty good chance you didn’t stick around for the ending. For one thing, the game produced just two homers; even worse, the first didn’t come until the sixth inning. And, of course, the ending doesn’t matter anyway.
There are lots of reasons for baseball’s decline, but I have to wonder if the All-Star game is, like the game in general, expected to be a home run derby and when it’s not, the aging fans check out the Blue Bloods rerun, while the younger ones checked out a long time ago.
If the baseball lords want to add something truly innovative to the three-day hypefest, maybe they ought to trash the homer derby and replace it with a bunt contest.
I suspect that many teams don’t even have a sign for the bunt. And why should they? The Triple Crown has been replaced by the Three True Outcomes. One-tool players like our own Miguel Sano can now play at the highest level even though they strike out 40 percent of the time, are a liability with a glove in their hand and would need to call Lyft to move a teammate from second to third base.
Back in the late 70s, when I was covering the Twins for a now-defunct newspaper, a reedy second baseman named Rob Wilfong was probably the most gifted bunter I’d ever seen. He used a bat to deaden the ball the way the rest of us use a fly-swatter to wipe out a house fly.
Given today’s juiced baseball, Wilfong might now be able to hit 10 homers in a single season. But I remember opening day of 1978, when Wilfong crushed one on opening day. After the game, I found him staring in anguish at the floor of the clubhouse. When I asked him why he was moping, he took a drag from his cigarette and said, “Now I’ve got nothing to look forward to for the rest of the year, because I already hit my home run.”
As it turned out, he was prescient. It was, indeed, the only homer he hit that year.
The next year, however, was a lot brighter for Wilfong. In 1979 he hit nine homers, which would turn out to be the most he would ever hit in 11 big league seasons. But that’s not what I had in mind. That year, he led the league with 25 sacrifice bunts. At the All-Star break, it looks like maybe nine sacrifice bunts will lead the American League. A lost art.
So bring on the Bunt Derby. With a million bucks in the pot for the winner, it might help batters learn a new skill. Remember how the extreme shift snuffed out Logan Morrison‘s career? The dude didn’t have to hit .186. He could have just pointed the bat toward third base often enough to keep the infield honest. But, no, he had too much pride.
Being a little guy and completely obsolete, I miss the bunt. But probably not as much as Justin Verlander. The Houston ace used the All-Star break to vent on behalf of his pitching brethren, after which baseball commissioner Rob Manfred made a lame attempt to deny the ball was juiced.
Manfred did, however, concede that the “pill” in the middle of the ball is “more centered,” which means that the ball wobbles less and thus is more aerodynamic. In other words, juiced.
Because Manfred lacks transparency and credibility, conspiracy theories abound. If listening to my allotted 10 minutes per month of sports radio is any indication, the leading theory is that the juiced ball is an effort to attract millennials and gamers, who are used to seeing bright images flash at insane speeds across screens. This is where irony comes in. Manfred has been completely feckless in efforts to speed up the game, which, the theory goes, is why more and longer home runs take the edge off of the game’s increasing ability to induce narcolepsy. The leading culprits in slowing down the game are, of course, pitchers. And Verlander happens to be one of the worst offenders. You can use a sundial to time the length between Verlander’s pitches.
But probably the worst offender is Manfred himself, who apparently didn’t grasp the negative significance of the juiced ball.
We can start with the face that the un-wobbling baseball doesn’t seem to be juicing attendance. And if there are homer addicts who have bought into the speedball, there will come a time when they won’t settle for the current rate of three or four taters per game. They’ll be jonesing for more and longer homers every year.
If that doesn’t bother Manfred, here’s something that should: a ball that’s hit harder than ever before also gets to the pitcher faster than ever before. You can make a ball that exits the bat at 110 mph — it’s becoming almost commonplace — but you can’t create a pitcher who can get out of the way of that ball. And a simple law of physics tells us that the faster the ball travels, the harder its impact.
In short, the happy, juicy ball is going to kill someone — most likely a pitcher — one of these days. Until now, the people at the most extreme risk were fans unprotected by nets. Nobody knows how many fans have been badly injured by foul balls, but what we do know is that it has taken teams about a century to put up nets, and even now there are teams that haven’t figured it out. So don’t expect the likes of Manfred to respond to the danger until it’s too late.
Until then, don’t raise your kids to be pitchers. Or catchers. Or bunters. The opposite field is yesterday’s news. Hitting is out; lifting is in. Forgive me if I sound nostalgic, but I remember when Tommy John was a person and not a surgery. I’m not saying the game was better, but it was far more subtle and far less time consuming.
Come to think of it, better. Definitely better.