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Power Outage: What Happened to Baseball’s Long Ball?

As an athlete or simply as a sports fan, what is the one aspect of a game that is the most exciting element?  In football it is without question a touchdown.

As an athlete or simply as a sports fan, what is the one aspect of a game that is the most exciting element?  In football it is without question a touchdown. In soccer or hockey, a goal is the ultimate thrill. Basketball, some would say its the slam dunk. Of all sports, the home run in baseball may be the purest moment, or play, that there is. Throughout its illustrious history, hitting a home run was an amazing expereince as it was something that countless fans used to listen out for on the radios as broadcasters would announce the game.

The 1950's and 1960's, referred to as “The Golden Age of Baseball," included the emergence of Jackie Robinson and the introduction of African-American players to the game, and the year of 1961 served as a defining moment of this Era. The great Home Run Chase of 1961 is one of baseball’s most cherished memories as Yankees teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris went on a tear that attracted even non baseball fans across the country. Maris would achieve the unthinkable, breaking the long standing record of Babe Ruth by hitting the magical number of 61 round-trippers in a season. The thought of this happening again was considered to be foreign. That is until the year of 1998 when the stage was once again set for greatness.

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The tandem of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa captivated America and put on a show for the ages. The story is well documented of how both sluggers redefined the Home Run by slamming a combined total of 136 homers. However the validity of what was accomplished all came crumbling down with the news that performance enhancing drugs were involved in Major League Baseball, which snowballed into a public spectacle that continues today. The time period by which this took place also included the escalating home run totals of countless other players and will forever be recognized as the 'Steroid Era.'  Sure, seeing the ball fly out of stadiums at an incredible rate was fun, and it also brought more fans out tothe ballparks; but now that baseball has cleaned up its act and has instituted a strict drug testing policy, it appears that someone has pulled the plug on the power surge.

 

In today’s game, home runs are way down. Whether someone wants to blame it on the purge of steroids or just an overall shift in the way batters are approaching the game, there is no denying that chances are slim when expecting to see balls flying over the fences. To highlight the disparity between the past and present, we can examine the numbers of August.  Through the mid way point of the month, there is only one team in all of baseball who has eclipsed the 20 home run mark. In fact, there are 13 teams who have yet to break 10. In the history of the game, Sammy Sosa in 2001 and Willie Mays in 1965, both hit 17 home runs in the month of August alone.  Based on projections, the 2014 season’s numbers in terms of home run production will be the lowest they have been since the 1993 season (the beginning of the Steroid Era).  


Within the last decade, there have been three seasons where major league batters clubbed more than 5,000 home runs (2005, 2006, and 2009). Out of the remaining six completed seasons, only two came close to that number (2007 and 2012). However one trend to note is that offensive numbers as a whole are down. Perhaps this can be attributed to the other aspect of the game which is pitching. The game has evolved to where team bullpens are more equipped to combat specific lineups. Right-handed pitchers are brought in to face right-handed batters, and vice versa on the left side of the plate. There are numerous theories that exist as to why baseball power numbers are not where they once were. New ballparks that favor pitchers, defenses becoming more efficient by implementing shifts according to players’ strengths and weaknesses, and so on. But one thing is for sure, despite the drop in numbers on the field, the figures representing player salaries are showing a steady climb.  


Baseball seems to be in a good place at the moment.  A new commissioner is on his way in and the attendance numbers from a season ago were the sixth highest total of all-time. Home runs are down, but other metrics are up. Now if there was only a way to find a simplified solution to speed up the game from a four hour clip, this would be another game changer that would be sure to make the sport's popularity soar once again.