For years, Joe Morgan and I have had a running disagreement about whether the ball is juiced. Joe believes it is. I don't know -- and I don't especially care.
First, let's define our terms. A ball is said to be "juiced" if it's been changed somehow so that it has more resiliency and will travel further. Maybe the yarn under the cover is wrapped more tightly than it should be. Maybe the ball's cork center is bigger. Who knows? In theory, a juiced ball flies further than one that hasn't been fiddled with. That's good for hitters, and it's especially good for home-run hitters.
Joe's belief is based on the numbers: There are more home runs hit in the big leagues today than twenty years ago. Juiced baseballs are one way to explain it. But so is stronger hitters and smaller ballparks. So, probably, is better lighting, or maybe El Niño.
Why does an increase in home runs have to be explained? So home runs are up. Why does this indicate something's wrong? The fans love it.
The same complaints were heard in 1961 when Roger Maris hit sixty-one home runs, and in 1927 when Ruth hit sixty. Is there a trend here?
"There is no doubt at all in my mind that the old-time ballplayer was smarter than the modern ballplayer. Now the game is all power, lively balls, and shorter fences."
Such were the views of "Wahoo" Sam Crawford, a Hall of Fame outfielder, who offered that opinion in 1960. Seems the game hit the skids after Wahoo Sam hung up his spikes...in 1917.
On Sunday Night Baseball, it's usually a home run that draws Joe and me into one of our juiced-ball discussions. A light-hitting infielder with three career homers might suddenly pop one out; it might even be an awkward or an off-balance swing. The ball jumps off the bat, and it's gone.
Joe played in the big leagues for twenty-two years. He's in the Hall of Fame. A homer like that just doesn't sit right with him.
"Jon, could be that one was juiced," he'll say with a smile, knowing we're headed for the abyss of another debate on the subject.
I just don't see it his way. I think the hitter deserves credit. If the swing was off-balance, well, maybe he's strong enough to reach the seats with less-than-perfect form. As long as the ball meets the bat at the center of percussion -- with sufficient bat speed -- why shouldn't it be a home run?
Such questions go on and on. Once you start doubting home runs -- which ones are legitimate and which aren't -- it's difficult to stop.
Unconventional home-run swings aren't new. In the '71 All-Star Game, the great Roberto Clemente hit an opposite-field upper-deck home run at Tiger Stadium on a high, inside pitch that most hitters wouldn't even have gotten their bats on.
Clemente's homer came up during one of our Sunday night discussions. I asked Joe whether he thought the ball was juiced that night in Detroit, and he said no; he believes that Clemente was such a fabulous hitter that he was capable of hitting that ball out with that swing.
Fabulous hitter that he was, Clemente was listed at 5-11, 175 pounds, about the size of the lightest-hitting infielders today. (Just try to find an outfielder that small in today's game!) And, obviously, Clemente wasn't doing weights, ever. More evidence, perhaps, that it's not the ball that's juiced these days, it's the hitters.
Copyright © 1998 by Jon Miller and Mark Hyman. Excerpted with permission.