Very fine, insightful column by Bill Livingston today in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He has espied a pattern most others have missed regarding the last decade of baseball:
- Last season was the first since the strike-shortened 1994 season that no one hit more than 50 home runs. It also marked the beginning, curiously enough, of Major League Baseball's flawed, half-baked, but perhaps still effective testing program for steroid use.
Someday, the slugging records set in the past several years might be seen for what they probably are - products of the same kind of illegal juicing that in track and field has recently embarrassed the U.S. Olympic Committee. T-and-F has been a drug-infested sport for years. Great records sadly create suspicion that a new drug-masking agent must be in use.
....At the start of the '90s, a 50-homer year was considered the modern equivalent of 60. When Cecil Fielder hit 51 for Detroit in 1991, it was the first time the 50-homer barrier had been breached since George Foster's 52 in 1977.
There were reasons for the power outage. The ultra-specialist, the closer, waited like a goblin behind the bullpen door. Expansion teams in Colorado, Arizona and Florida hadn't been born. Camden Yards and Jacobs Field existed, if anywhere, alongside sugarplums in sluggers' dreams the night before Christmas.
....All of that changed. The most obvious alteration was in the sluggers' physiques. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the era's poster-behemoths, changed body type in ways that made you doubt it was all a result of dedication in the weight room.
The power spree seems to have been the result of neglect by management, as the glorified home run derbies restored the game's popularity after the disastrous 1994 strike, and of obstructionism by the players union, as threats of steroid testing endangered sluggers' enlarged paychecks.
These years constituted the biggest artificial inflation of offense since the ball was (almost certainly) enlivened in the 1930s to lure Depression Era customers to the ballpark with a bigger bang for the buck. The Arizona story notes the 60-homer mark was reached only twice through 1997; since then, six times. Only 17 players hit more than 50 homers until the 1990s; since then, 19 times.
Circumstantial evidence? Perhaps, but enough circumstantial evidence adds up to a pretty damning view of the incredible offensive records of the last decade, and with steroids now on the radar, that decade seems very unlikely to be duplicated until baseball once again turns a blind eye toward what its players are doing to themselves and the historical integrity of the game.