Watch out! Here comes another homer

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Baseball is troubled by too much of a good thing. The game suffers from a surfeit of slugging. The home run has gotten entirely out of hand.

What was once an event is now an epidemic. What once were tight ballgames are now so much batting practice.

Circuit clouts. Round trippers. Taters. Tonks. Dingers. Also, Dialing Eight, which is the standard access number for long distance calls in hotels. Home runs are proliferating at the rate of rabbits, and so are its synonyms. Channel 19's Greg Hoard, who is to jargon what brides are to June, has described homers as Cha-Chas, Ta-tas Hamma's and El-Kabongs.

''El-Kabong is my favorite,'' Hoard said Friday. ''That's from Quick Draw McGraw. He'd dress up like Zorro, swing down on a rope, hit somebody over the head with his guitar and holler, 'El-Kabong.' ''

No self-respecting sportscaster wants to repeat himself on the air, and home run highlights have recently become as redundant as Dennis Rodman.

Through Thursday night's games, major-league hitters had produced 1,624 homers in 718 games - an average of 2.26 per ballgame. Most teams will reach the one-third mark of their season this weekend. Three players are on schedule to swat at least 60 homers.

Roger Maris' 1961 single-season record of 61 homers has survived longer than did Babe Ruth's 1927 mark of 60, but it is now under siege as never before. Eleven big-league boppers project to at least a 50-home run pace this season, and 22 figure to reach 40.

These are staggering statistics. Never before have more than two hitters struck 50 homers in the same season, and no one has hit more than 52 since Maris. Yet what has historically been a solitary pursuit of a remote record might seem a cavalry charge by mid-summer.

Belle on the way to 67

''We haven't posted odds on anybody hitting 62,'' said Vinny Magliulo, of the Caesars Palace Sportsbook in Las Vegas. ''But we'll probably reexamine it around All-Star time.''

Barring injury, suspension or implosion, Cleveland's cantankerous Albert Belle (on pace to hit 67) could be within reach of Maris' record by Labor Day. Baltimore's Brady Anderson (20 homers in 49 games) might seem a fad, except that the Orioles' center fielder patrols territory that once served as the site of Ruth's father's saloon. Powerful karma there.

Mo Vaughn? Look at those muscles. Ken Griffey Jr.? Watch that sweet swing. Jay Buhner? Dig that goatee, man. Henry Rodriguez? Your guess is as good as mine.

Theories abound concerning the cause of this power surge. Year-round training regimens have produced a pool of larger, stronger players than previous generations, and they are feasting on ever-punier expansion pitching.

The new ballparks are typically cozier than those they replace, with less foul territory and smaller dimensions, and many of the older ballparks have been made more hitter-friendly by repositioning fences and lowering walls.

Allegations also persist that the ball's elasticity has been enhanced (''juiced,'' as they say). Such claims are more commonplace than Elvis sightings.

Bombs away

Another notion, first advanced by Indians pitching coach Jack Aker in the 1970s, holds that home runs are on the rise due to underground nuclear testing.

''Because of that, all gravity is leaving the earth,'' Aker said. ''And so are the baseballs.''

Fluctuations in baseball's offensive output are more easily traced to expansion or significant rules changes. In 1919, the major-league single-season home run record was 29. The spitball was outlawed a year later (except for the grandfathering of two pitchers per club), and Babe Ruth promptly raised the bar to 54 homers.

Roger Maris broke Ruth's record during the first expansion year of the modern era. The hitters were thrice blessed in 1969 by expansion, a contracted strike zone and the reduction of the pitcher's mound from 15-10 inches.

Then came the designated hitter, and more sophisticated exercise equipment, and free agency. Players started swinging from their heels more freely in order to land large long-term contracts.

''Taters,'' Reggie Jackson explained, ''that's where the money is.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 1, 1996.