Saturday, June 12, 1999

Indians' offense is overkill




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cleveland Indians are too much of a good thing. Too much muscle. Too much might.

        The nicely nuanced national pastime has become an orgy of offensive overkill, and no one is more responsible than That Team Up North. The Indians are averaging almost seven runs per game, beating the bejabbers out of the ball, making the tense pitchers' duel more endangered than the spotted owl.

        They hit four homers in Friday's 8-6 victory over the Reds, and three of them were struck by fellows hitting first, eighth and ninth. Compared to Mike Hargrove's lineup, Murderers Row was a collection of Quakers.

        Yes, the Tribe is tremendous, but also troubling. This is a big-league baseball team with beer league softball statistics: Part juggernaut, part joke. The Indians symbolize the growing imbalance between big-budget ballclubs and those of more modest means, and baseball's shift from a sport of strategy and skill to a product pandering to Nintendo tastes and atrophied attention spans.

Evolution of power
        They are the product of an evolutionary pattern distinguished by juiced balls, shrunken stadia, postage stamp strike zones and an industry indifferent to better slugging through chemistry. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa capitalized on optimum conditions in shattering the single-season home run record last season. Now, pitchers claim, the balls are sewn so tightly that it is tough to grip the seams.

        If baseball's rules-makers do not soon see the need for balance — most obviously, by raising the mound — pitchers may start setting up shop behind concrete pillboxes. The likelihood of that change, however, is somewhere between infinitesimal and none.

        “Five years ago, you heard people say that there weren't enough runs,” Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee said Friday afternoon. “Now, they complain that your second baseman is hitting 20 home runs a year. I like it. It's what I'm used to.”

        Taubensee was born in October of 68, the high-water mark for pitching since the death of the dead-ball era. Denny McLain won 31 games that season for Detroit, and St. Louis' Bob Gibson compiled an astonishing ERA of 1.12. The pitchers were so far ahead of the hitters that summer that Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title with a .301 average. Panicked ownership subsequently lowered the pitcher's mound from 15 inches to 10 in an effort to enhance hitting.

Lofty numbers
        Now, the pendulum is again out of place. The Indians showed up at Cinergy Field Friday night with a team average of .301. The five hitters Hargrove sent to the plate in the first inning — Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and David Justice — were hitting .344, .333, .338, .344 and .302. Jeff Newman has waved so many baserunners home this season that he figures to become the first third-base coach to require rotator cuff surgery.

        “They're a very potent ballclub,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said at the end of the evening. “You play the Giants, and you say, "Let's not let (Barry) Bonds beat us. You play Arizona, and it's (Matt) Williams. With the Dodgers, it's (Raul) Mondesi. This club has got three-four-five guys like that.”

        The Indians are undeniably fun to watch — for a while — but even ice cream loses its flavor if it becomes the main course at every meal. Offense has become so abundant, and pitching so scarce, that baseball increasingly approximates three hours of batting practice.

        Consider: The American League has had more grand slams than shutouts this season. The Yankees have seen fit to execute only three sacrifice bunts. The art of “little ball” is practiced less widely than scrimshaw.

        “I remember watching Jay Bell when he was with Pittsburgh,” Taubensee said. “I remember him bunting early in the game all the time. Now, you look at him (with Arizona), and he's got 20 homers.”

        Taubensee exaggerates. Bell had only 18 homers before the D'Backs' night game at Anaheim. Still, that's reason enough to raise the mound.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

REDS PAGE
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE