Going Batty

* The ball is juiced. The stubborn old men who run baseball will forever deny it, but the poor devils earning 28 cents an hour to sew the things together in Haiti might tell a different story: The solid core is livelier, they might tell you, and the wool windings around that are much tighter than they used to be. The cowhide cover's also more taut, imparting something like the physics of a Superball. But the red stitching holding everything together is sewn more flatly to the surface, making the ball harder to grip and, thus, more difficult to cuuuuuurve or sliiiiiide.

* In 1996, the plate is a postage stamp. There's no debating this one. While some guys wearing blue are still known as "pitchers' umpires" because of their broad interpretations of the strike zone, the heater at the knees or the hook just below the letters is no longer called a strike. In terms of latitude, pitchers who used to make their living nibbling at the corners of the plate are also out of luck. The slider "on the black" has gone out of fashion, blue-wise. The result? More grooved strikes. More lasers hit up the gaps. More homers.

* The delayed-fatigue syndrome. The most intriguing premise to come up from the bullpens this year holds that the ruinous and divisive 1994 baseball strike is just now beginning to take its heaviest toll on major-league pitching staffs. After sitting out much of the 1994 season and ceding 1995's critical spring training to so-called "replacement players," the theory goes, pitchers got through last season and most of this one on memory and talent rather than actual muscle conditioning. Hitters caught up with the training curve faster, and now that 1996 is almost over, they are completely dominant, while the pitchers have run out of gas. That could explain the late-season, perhaps temporary, swoons of talented pitching teams like Atlanta, Cleveland and the New York Yankees. And it could bring some surprises in the playoffs if pitching talent mysteriously evens out in October.

Conspiracy theorists (you know who you are) have good reasons to embrace all these power theories at once. Here's the scenario. In the wake of the baseball strike, even the game's diehard fans were deeply alienated by players and owners alike, and the powers that be needed new ways to bring the public back to the parks. The flash of pro basketball and the pounding action of football and hockey had already won over a potential new generation of fans, and the only way baseball could compete was with more excitement. In other words, more scoring.

Is it a stretch to suppose that the owners have hopped up the ball, put blinkers on the umps and then let big hitters, little ballparks and mediocre pitching take care of the rest? Not at all. In fact, there's a strong baseball precedent to support just such a theory. To wit:

In 1919, after eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, baseball was thrown into a crisis unlike any it had ever known. Dis-illusioned fans stayed away, and not even the appointment of a hard-nosed, independent baseball commissioner (the kind of figure we no longer have), Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, could revive it.

What did revive the game in the 1920s was a man named George Herman Ruth, who essentially invented the home run. By 1930, it is well-established, baseball's leaders conspired to invent more Bambinos by creating the first "rabbit ball." It worked: That year the entire National League batted .303, the American .288. The most bizarre beneficiaries of the new (and not so secret) technology were the Philadelphia Phillies, who compiled a team batting average of .315, scored 6.13 runs per game and finished...well, they finished forty games out of first place and seven games out of seventh place. Because their pitchers allowed opposing hitters to bat .350 at Philadelphia's Baker Bowl.

Does history repeat itself? Did Lefty throw the slider?

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