Backbackback-back! Gone!

Last Saturday, three days before the All-Star Game, Petey Maestas waited two hours for the chance to hit a home run off Randy Johnson. Johnson, the hawk-nosed, fright-wigged, six-foot-ten-inch flamethrower of the Seattle Mariners, has not been enjoying the best of seasons--seven wins, seven losses, seventeen home runs yielded in 127 innings. But when The Big Unit glowered down at him from the mound, Maestas quaked gently in the batter's box and his little aluminum bat looked like a matchstick.

Willing though he was, the twelve-year-old would-be slugger from Albuquerque, New Mexico, managed to foul off just one of Johnson's pitches and missed the five others by what might generously be called daylight.

Little matter that the Randy Johnson Petey faced was a videotaped image on a screen at the overcrowded Pinnacle All-Star FanFest at the Colorado Convention Center. Or that the daunting heaters zipping by his astonished eyes were really sixty-mile-an-hour puffballs flung his way by a pitching machine. The boy was still crushed, relatively speaking.

"Some day," he said, shaking his head gloomily. "I'll hit one off him some day." Petey's grandmother, Maria Maestas, tousled his hair, and his mood brightened. "Anyway, it was cool," he allowed.

Ever since Babe Ruth saved major-league baseball in the 1920s with his prodigious power, the home run has loomed huge in the imagination of the average baseball fan--grownup or child. Ask the fellow next to you in the bleachers who his favorite players of all time are, and the answer will most likely be a litany of sluggers. Mantle, Mays, Bichette, Griffey, Aaron. McGwire, Ruth, Snider, Gonzalez, Colavito. As a people, we Americans have always loved muscle more than mind, and in sport, nothing so personifies it as the human behemoth smashing the horsehide out of the park.

"I wanna hit homers," Petey Maestas said Saturday. "Real ones."
There's the rub: Real ones. This has become the Year of the Home Run--amazingly, the major leagues' top four sluggers have each whacked 30-plus dingers in the first half of the season, and they're all a threat to break Roger Maris's 37-year-old single-season mark of 61. But when it came time this week to take part in an exhibition home-run hitting contest in the homer-happiest park since Ebbets Field, before the best of their peers and a TV audience in the tens of millions, half a dozen of the big guys suddenly got a case of avoidance.

Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners and Juan (Going Going) Gonzalez of Texas, 35 and 26 dingers respectively at the All-Star break, worried out loud that they would foul up their long-ball strokes for the rest of the season. Ever the crowd-pleaser, the Giants' Barry Bonds muttered about the emptiness of the whole endeavor--at least as far as his wallet was concerned. San Diego's Greg Vaughn (30 HRs) and former Colorado Rockie Andres Galarraga (28) begged off with sore backs, and barely 36 hours before the thing got under way, Slammin' Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, who broke a 67-year-old major-league record this June by hitting 20 home runs in a single month, developed a mysterious injury to his left shoulder--while sleeping.

It would take just about three days to heal, Sosa reckoned. The length of the All-Star break.

Of the refuseniks, only Griffey was eventually shamed enough to change his mind. Booed by resentful All-Star batting-practice crowds at Coors Field, the shocked center-fielder reinstalled himself into Monday's Home Run Derby and wound up winning the thing with a total of nineteen long balls, which traveled a total of 8,178 feet. The contest favorite, the bearish redhead Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, who hit an impossible 37 homers in the first half of the season and has been provoking oohs and aahs from batting-practice crowds all year with his 500-foot shots, never made it out of the first round.

However, Big Mac did willingly take up his cudgel and enter the derby as a happy participant. Honored, he said, just to be here.

Petey Maestas couldn't have said it better.
Exhibition swings aside, the current vogue in home runs is real enough. Between the time George Foster struck 52 dingers for the Cincinnati Reds in 1977 and Cecil Fielder hit 50-plus for Detroit in the early 1990s, not one player did it. This year, ten players could hit 50 or more. In 1986, only one major-leaguer, Toronto's Jesse Barfield, hit even 40 long balls; ten seasons later, seventeen guys did it. Need anymore be said about McGwire's 37 blasts before the Fourth of July? Or the fact that Gonzalez already has 101 runs batted in this season and could challenge Hack Wilson's record 190?

Among the theories used to explain the sudden surge in longball power, the notion that today's players are bigger, stronger and better-conditioned seems to hold most credence. Also, new ballparks are smaller (Baltimore's Camden Yards) or physically livelier (Coors Field), while others have been altered in favor of the hitter (fences have been shortened in St. Louis and San Diego). Take your choice. The umpires' strike zones have shrunk, giving sluggers more choice. Expansion-era pitching is weak. The balls are juiced, the bats are corked, the players are stuffed so full of energy-boosting creatine (or muscle-building steroids) that even the leanest shortstop can't help knocking the thing out of the hitter-friendly Kingdome or over the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo