Nationals 5 – Braves 4; CJ: 1-4
Yesterday I declared it the ‘Year of the Pitcher’ (assuming a few more no-hitters and/or perfect games are thrown). I also mentioned how I felt it was a nice contrast to the ‘Live Ball Era,’ and, given the past few years of impressive pitching performances, maybe we are moving into a sustained balance of hitting and pitching.
Naturally that got me thinking about the ‘Live Ball Era.’ And I should clarify first that I’m referring to the speculative ‘Live Ball Era’ that happened after the strike and not the one immediately following the ‘Dead Ball Era.’ And I believe it’s still termed ‘speculative’ because no one has ever proven its existence or admitted that the balls were juiced. There was, without a doubt, an increase in the number of homeruns hit in the later half of the ‘90’s and into the ‘00’s, but no one has ever proven that the baseball was, in fact, more tightly wound, and that it was a contributing factor.
And maybe they weren’t. I’ve heard reasonable arguments as to why it wasn’t the ball. One is that pitching talent was diluted after expansion happened for the second time in five years. In ’93, MLB added the Rockies and Marlins, followed by the Rays and the Diamondbacks in ’98. That means 100 new roster spots, roughly 50 of those for pitchers. I could see how that would thin out the talent, but there’s a lot of talent out there. Plus, couldn’t you say it would have the same effect on hitting? Wouldn’t the total number of homeruns hit in the league go down while only a few talented homerun hitters see a spike in their numbers? In the reality, the number of homeruns hit consistently increased from 1997 to 2001. Even the untalented hitters were hitting homeruns off the talented pitchers? Maybe, but is that all there is to it?
How about lighter bats? Or players wearing protective armor to lean into their wheelhouse? Maybe the bats, but that equipment has all but disappeared. We’re still missing something.
Now for the elephant in the room: steroids. Probably the largest contributor. However, even guys that I don’t think took steroids – like Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff and Derek Jeter – all experienced a spike in their homerun numbers in the late ‘90’s. How do you explain that?
Most likely, it’s a combination of these three: diluted pitching, steroids, and juiced balls, which I do believe MLB used after the ‘94 strike. I think it was a conscious decision, and I think it was meant to do exactly what it did, get people excited about baseball again by giving them a massive, never-ending fireworks display. And the reason I believe this is because of what I alluded to at the start of this post: MLB had juiced balls before with great success.
Many fans have heard of the ‘Dead Ball Era,’ a time early in baseball when not a lot of homeruns were hit. From what I understand of what I’ve read and heard, this was due mainly to the style of play. There was a lot of “get him on, get him over, get him in” strategy at work, or small ball. Sac bunts, stolen bases, slap singles. That was pretty much all they had.
The belief is also that, because baseball was young and, therefore, broke, they kept using the same baseballs over and over again, game after game. Now, the more you use the ball, the softer it gets, which leads to more give when it makes contact with the bat. That makes it harder to hit the ball long distances. The surface of the ball absorbs more energy from the bat then reacts against it. Think about trying to hit a flat tennis ball. Not a lot of air in it, so it just sort of collapses against the racket strings instead of staying firm. Didn’t know you were getting a science lesson today, did you? (In reality, that explanation is probably pretty poor. Ask Google. It will explain it much better.)
Anyway, so not a lot of homeruns, yet people still liked seeing them. So, the theory for the first ‘Live Ball Era’ is that there was a conscious effort on the part of baseball owners to use newer balls more often and to even start rotating in new balls during games, a concept that hadn’t been tried before. Historians think this led to an increase in homeruns, particularly by Babe Ruth, and, thus, more people became fans of baseball.
Now for my theory. I think baseball, being a sport that is strongly connected to its history, understood it had a problem with fan interest post the ’94 strike, and saw a potential solution in their past. How do they get fans back? Score lots of runs. How can you score lots of runs? By hitting lots of homeruns. And how can you ensure lots of homeruns? By deciding to have baseball manufactures wind the balls tighter.
If you wind a baseball together more tightly (more string wrapped around the rubber center), you make the ball denser and harder, thus more explosive when it comes into contact with the hard surface of a bat. (Or did they do something to the leather? I don’t know. I’m just a conspiracy theorist.) That makes them easier to hit long distances.
If it was intentional, it worked. MLB today is flush with cash and has consistently high attendance. They aren’t king, that’s still the NFL, but they’re a solid second in the professional sports world.
But was it a good idea? Was it the right thing for MLB to do? To knowingly jeopardize all their historical statistics and make them less significant just to sell a few more tickets? I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say ‘No’ because I enjoyed all the homeruns being hit. I remember looking forward to watching Baseball Tonight to see how many homeruns were hit a day. I loved the ’98 race, as I’ve said. But, today, I don’t know. It helped save my favorite game, but at what historical cost? I guess that’s up to each fan to decide.