Here’s something fun to do and, admittedly, the fun is best experienced if you are a baseball dork and enjoy laughing at the relentless and beautiful absurdity of professional sports.
So, if you’re into that sort of thing, think a little about how worked up people were 15 years ago about all the home runs in baseball.
Remember that? We had Congressional committees, for goodness sake. We worried and we screamed and not just about steroids. Juiced balls, supercharged bats, shrunken strike zones, you name it. The game was out of control, many said.
Those were precious times.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Today, a shade more than halfway through the season, baseball is on pace for 400 more home runs than 2000, the most homerific season on record, smack in the middle of the — foreboding voice — Steroid Era.
And, basically, in place of all the cries about the ruination of the game, we have a bunch of human shrug emojis.
“The question is not what I like,” commissioner Rob Manfred said to a group of writers on Tuesday. “The issue is what our fans want to see. And our research suggests the home run is a popular play in baseball.”
This is the commissioner telling you all you need to know about where the trend of more power and more runs is going: nowhere but up.
But this threatens to be wasted energy, because the most important thing here is not whether the ball is juiced, but what baseball does about it.
And that’s not intended in the way you might think. The league shouldn’t treat this as a scandal — but as an opportunity.
Being the commissioner means having to be aware of, and react to, changes as obvious and drastic as the explosion in home runs. They’re up nearly 50 percent from just three years ago, and there is no way to hide that.
So, sure. The commissioner will send a memo to all 30 teams saying the league office is looking into it. He will even hire multiple outside firms to test baseballs, and wonder if he should test bats, but he will mostly blame a change in how the game is taught and played.
He will talk about teams and hitters putting more emphasis on launch angles — nobody even knew that term five years ago — and more acceptance of strikeouts and about how good the players are.
Because the more you hear Manfred talk about this, the more you realize this is something like a commissioner’s dream: a boost in the game’s defining play without anyone talking about syringes.
There is a consistent acceptance in the way Manfred talks about this. This was his basic message when he was in Kansas City for an announcement at the Negro Leagues Museum last month, and it’s been his message whenever he’s asked about home runs, which is often.
“Will we ever know the whole answer? Probably not,” he said. “I think the more important question for us is to figure out as much as we can about what’s going on, and then even more importantly, think about this for our fans, and whether we need to do something to manage the change that’s happening organically.”
There’s a lot to parse out here, but basically: the commissioner is saying he doesn’t know, won’t ever know, and that the most important thing is to think about the fans — who are telling baseball’s researchers they like more home runs.
Players union executive director Tony Clark spoke to the same group of writers on Tuesday. One of the most important things he said was that baseball is behind other sports in marketing its players, and that the game has a rare opportunity to “tell the stories” of a particularly talented group of young stars right now.
“We have some catching up to do,” he said. “But I think we can get there.”
It’s easy to see how this might work, especially after a Home Run Derby that exceeded big expectations, with only one contestant past 31 and the finals pitting a 24-year-old and 25-year-old.
Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Mike Trout and many more can help shape a game still reluctant to promote personality. This is a terrific opportunity, and considering the studies that show how quickly baseball’s fan base is aging, something the game can’t well afford to pass up.
For whatever it’s worth, I actually do believe the balls have changed, and not just because FiveThirtyEight and The Ringer recently ran stories with evidence suggesting so. But I believe the small changes in the ball are amplified by the other factors Manfred mentions — most prominently an increased emphasis on hitting the ball in the air.
Because if you listen closely, Manfred always says tests indicate the balls are within the same specs that have always existed. But there is room within those parameters, and even a small change could create a big jump in home runs when measured over entire seasons.
All of this is fine, because Manfred is right. How many people are bummed to see more home runs?
So that’s not the point. What matters is how baseball deals with its new normal. The game made a lot of money on the last home-run boom, and then took a lot of arrows as the prevalence of drug use became better understood.
Assuming there is nothing more nefarious than a minor change in the ball going on here, baseball is wasting a rare opportunity to better promote itself to younger fans who will decide the sport’s future using younger stars who will carry the game forward.