Going Batty

How about a nice hand for Hideo Nomo? Better yet, how about skipping the usual courtesies and immediately installing Hideo Nomo in the Hall of Fame?

On September 17 the Dodgers' high-kicking, skyward-gazing right-hander waited out a two-hour pre-game rain delay, then threw the third no-hitter of the 1996 baseball season. He struck out seven batters with a dancing heater and a dipping forkball, and his victims failed to mount any scoring threat after the second inning. Nomo's no-no was the twentieth in Dodgers history.

Given the booming offensive outburst in baseball this year and the unusual site of Nomo's feat, it qualifies as a major miracle--like getting H. Ross Perot to shut up, or keeping your beer cold in hell.

Little matter that Bob Dole, trailing in the polls and unstuck in time, announced that the "Brooklyn Dodgers" had just thrown a no-hitter and that now he would, too--every day until the first Tuesday in November.

Little matter. Nomo had no-hit the Colorado Rockies, prime examples of major-league baseball's astonishing power surge. And he had done it in Coors Field, the ultimate shrine to the game's preposterous new exaggerations. Cooperstown may not be good enough for Nomo. How about a free ticket straight down the Eightfold Path to Nirvana?

Now that the regular season is drawing to a close and the playoffs are about to begin in a cloud of mystery, let's take a look back at the game's 1996 scoring fireworks--and how the fuses got lit.

Baseball fans searching for an early-season omen got it on Wednesday, April 24. The Minnesota Twins defeated Detroit 24-11 at Tiger Stadium, setting the tone for a day in which 28 major-league teams crossed the plate 195 times. That averaged out to 13.9 runs per game, the highest one-day mark in the entire twentieth century, surpassing a 13.6 average on July 12, 1931.

Not only that, the 35 runs scored at Detroit were the most in any major-league game since May 17, 1979, when Philadelphia squeaked by the Chicago Cubs 23-22 with the wind blowing straight out at Wrigley Field. Just for reference, the Phillies beat the Rockies this past April 24 by the relatively modest score of 10-8.

Was this an aberration? Another baseball oddity to be savored around the hot stove come February?

Not at all...
* Roger Maris's single-season home-run record is safe for one more year, but Oakland A's slugger Mark McGwire became just the thirteenth player in history to hit 50 dingers--despite missing 31 games with a torn muscle in his right foot. Must have been sweet for the big guy: Nine years ago he gave up the chance to whack number 50 on the last day of the season so he could be present at the birth of his son. The least popular ballplayer beyond the Cleveland city limits, stormy Indian Albert Belle, is also drawing close to the 50 mark, which he reached last season.

* Todd Hundley of the lowly New York Mets broke Roy Campanella's mark for homers by a catcher (41) set way back in 1953, and no fewer than thirteen major-leaguers hit 40 or more this season. The "30s" are too numerous to mention. Meanwhile, the hapless Tigers, 36 games out of first place last week, set a record for home runs allowed--234 and counting. The Seattle Mariners, who lacked the services of staff ace Randy "The Big Unit" Johnson for most of the year, crept into tenth place on the all-time gopherball list and at week's end were threatening ninth place (208 homers given up). And at least two American League teams--Baltimore and Oakland--will this year break the season mark for team home runs.

* While the big boys smashed the ball out of the parks with ease and pitchers' earned-run averages entered the stratosphere, the speedsters were setting some standards of their own. Sleek Mets center-fielder Lance Johnson not only has 50-plus stolen bases, he's got more than 210 hits; Ellis Burks of the Rox has piled up 200-plus himself, and for the second year running, Colorado has four 30-home-run hitters--something only the 1977 Dodgers and the great old Yankees teams of yore had accomplished. These same Bombers--Burks, Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla--also make up the first quartet of National Leaguers to drive in 100 runs apiece since way back in 1929. Actually, the grand Bomber total is well over 500 RBI. Imagine if the long-injured Larry Walker had been able to join his teammates in the thin air, before the crowds of 50,000, facing curveballs that never broke.

So, then, what do all the big numbers add up to for the homies? A third-place finish in the four-team National League West. And the startling indignity of having been victimized in two of 1996's three no-hitters: Nomo did it last week; Florida's Al Leiter busted the Rox in Miami on May 11. For the record, comeback Yankee Dwight Gooden baffled Seattle May 14 to notch the Bigs' third no-no of the year.

To return to our theme, baseball thinkers have put forth a dozen theories for the grand old game's sudden scoring inflation--all of which are probably partly true:

* Expansion has thinned out the pitching, elevated hordes of minor-league arms to the Bigs and made it open season on every 87-mile-an-hour fastball on both circuits. Coupled with bigger, stronger, better-conditioned batters and a new generation of hitter-friendly ballparks (see also: Fake Street Bombers), pitching is doomed--except when Hideo No-No pulls off a miracle or when Boston's Roger Clemens strikes out 20 Detroit Tigers, as he did in a game last Thursday. On the other hand, any decent Legion-A starter from Ypsilanti could probably strike out ten of this year's Tigers.

* 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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