In sports, we all have our favorite team, favorite player, favorite city, or even favorite ownership group. We cheer, we scream, we cry, we fully invest ourselves and incorporate these “games” into our everyday lives. There are only 24 hours in a day and there is a constant battle to grab our undivided attention. Many have responsibilities such as work, school, children, relationships, the list goes on.
So where do sports come into play? I am assuming that if you are reading this that you already know that in each individual sporting league there is competition to fill the stadiums or arenas, to sell the most merchandise, to market the superstar player… but did you ever think about the competition between the four Major American Sports? This is a story about Major League Baseball and their willingness to do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t transition from “America’s Favorite Pastime” to quite simply “America’s Pastime.”
Let’s start with some names from every young adult’s past – Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez – all typical names you would expect to hear in an article associated with juicing, right? Well, these guys are in the rear-view, but their era may be associated with being the place where all these troubles started. Prior to the 1998 campaign, Roger Maris held the home run record of 61 in a regular season. As the PED era was getting ready to be shoved into the public spotlight, here’s what was happening: McGwire was breaking Maris’ record twice (1998 and 1999), Sammy Sosa was breaking it in the same season as McGwire (98′) and Barry Bonds was breaking all the records in 2001 with a whopping 73 home runs!
Major League Baseball came out of this era learning two things. One, that doping was a MAJOR problem in the game of baseball and, two, that home runs and good hitting SELL. After the 2001 season came to an end, baseball started to get its act together and by 2006 you started to see “clean” stars such as Ryan Howard and David Ortiz (Big Papi) captivate the game. We’ve had, and still do to this day, the occasional PED flare up, but for the most part the MLB had its doping issue more under control than ever before.
2006 was a strong season for MLB – young up-and-coming power hitters littered the game and there were fresh storylines everywhere. However, as we moved toward the end of that decade and into the next one, things began to sour. From 2007 to 2015 the MLB averaged a total of 4,725 home runs per year, hitting rock bottom in 2014 with a pedestrian total of 4,186 (see chart below). Note: at the time of writing, there were 1,884 home runs in 2017 year to date – so the 6,217 is PROJECTED.
Down an average of almost 700 home run balls per year based on the 2006 number spelled trouble. As they say, “chicks dig the long ball.” Baseball diehards and purists love good pitching, hitting with RISP, suicide squeezes, the occasional no hitter… but is it enough?
With faster paced action packed sports such as football, basketball and even hockey starting to captivate the youth of America, many privately began to wonder – could baseball become obsolete or extinct? In 2005-2006, the NHL introduced a series of rule changes which were designed to make the game more exciting. They eliminated the center line (no more two-line passes), downsized goaltender equipment, added goaltender puck handling restrictions, changed icing rules and introduced a shootout. Overtime rule changes were also incorporated to create a wide open 3-on-3 matchup with breathtaking scoring chance after breathtaking scoring chance. The result of these changes were a faster paced, more exciting game for the fans.
In the early 2000s the NFL introduced illegal contact and made it much more difficult for defensive backs to be physical with wide receivers, thus creating more offense. They have continued to tweak things over the past decade by outlawing hits below the knees or to the head. Overtime format, kickoffs and extra points have also been modified with the end goal being uniform – to implement a more exciting and viewable product while creating more longevity for the league’s superstars. While not drastically changing as many rules, the NBA took the same path as the NHL and the NFL by eliminating the physical style of play. No more hand checks or bad boy Pistons – just a wide open free flowing game with an excess amount of three-point attempts, similar to the game being played in Europe.
If you’re Major League Baseball – What in the world can you do to keep up with the times? With the infusion of free-flowing offense incorporated by the other three major North American sports, a major challenge lays on the desk of Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner. Baseball is already a game likened by some to “watching paint dry.” It is also probably the toughest of the four sports to implement an “infusion of offense or speed/action.” I’m sure the brass at MLB headquarters had been thinking about this for quite some time, but after 2014 it came to a head. Something had to be done, again, only 4,186 home runs were hit that year! If Major League Baseball wanted to play with the big boys, it was time to do something.
In 2015 the MLB introduced a pitch clock to the Arizona Fall League. This pitch clock eventually made its way to Major League Baseball and is now implemented on a nightly basis. The rule states that pitchers must begin windup or begin motion within 20 seconds or an automatic ball will be called. While this was a good idea to speed up the game some, was it enough? Remember those captivating nights when McGwire and Sosa would battle back and forth for the home run lead?
Now THAT was must see TV! The MLB surely knew the pitch clock was not enough to re-captivate their fans… so the questioned remained, what could be done?
Now I am not necessarily implying that Major League Baseball is cheating or promoting cheating. Maybe, players as a whole decided it was time to cut junk food and beer in favor of weight rooms and pushups? I’m sure there are even still some guys in today’s game who can get away with using PEDS. There is no way to really be sure, but there are plenty of whispers implying that there is something Rob Manfred is not telling us. After that 2014 season of just 4,186 home runs the home run total jumped to 4,909 in 2015, a 10-year HIGH of 5,610 in 2016 (referred to as the great four-bagger epidemic of 2016), and is now on pace for a record shattering 6,217 home runs in 2017. As I sat in my man cave Tuesday night and watched dinger after dinger from the likes of Zach Cozart (2), Joey Votto, Devin Marrero (2), Jackie Bradley Jr, Mitch Moreland, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Todd Frazier, Tim Anderson Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Kendrys Morales, Bradley Zimmer, Jason Kipnis, Brett Gardner (2), Matt Holiday (2), Yadier Molina, Lucas Duda, Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Elvis Andrus, Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza, Daniel Robertson, Alex Bregman, Albert Pujols, Matt Kemp, Tyler Flowers, Austin Hedges, and Kyle Schwarber, I couldn’t help but wonder… what am I watching?
Yes – you read that list correctly – multiple teams had three or four individuals go yard, some of those individuals doing it twice, all in ONE night. The latest splurge in dingers brought the year to date total to a blistering (no pun intended – sorry struggling pitchers!) 1,884 through just 50 games. It goes without saying that a change in pace and excitement was badly needed for baseball. These high-scoring contests where any comeback is possible and any ball could leave the yard at any moment are thrilling to the casual viewer. For baseball diehards like myself, however, it leaves more questions than answers. Historically speaking, whenever there has been a major power spike in baseball it has been associated with JUICING. In a previous era we blamed individuals and the culture. In the Year 2017, could we be blaming the balls?
The other three major sports have all done something to put the emphasis back on offense, and it is believed that baseball has followed suit. It almost feels like every sport has done something to make the game more offensively exciting for the fans, and we should be ok with that. The question remains, Major League Baseball, what did you do? Baseball will always be in position to be America’s Favorite Pastime, but we need honesty and transparency. Time’s yours, Rob Manfred…
Home Run Post courtesy of Director, Culinary Business Development Steve Kauf
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