In 1999, Nike aired a commercial that changed the mentality of young ballplayers everywhere. The ad begins with Mark McGwire taking batting practice while beautiful women worship the slugger’s strength. Cy Young winners Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine attempt to get the attention of the women, but they’re transfixed on the flight of Big Mac’s ball.
The pitching legends determine that hitting home runs is the only way to stand out, so they launch into a classic training montage, complete with bootleg Rocky music. Eventually, they step into the box and start hitting the ball out of the park. Their efforts prove fruitful, as the women walk up to them and greet them with smiles on their faces. At that moment Maddux speaks and an immortal phrase is born: chicks dig the long ball.
It’s corny, sure, but it’s also funny and prophetic. In my experience, the phrase is more often used as a reaction to a home run as opposed to a reason for hitting home runs. The message, though, is the same: the home run trumps every other outcome in the game of baseball. Dominant pitching is exciting and web gems demonstrate extreme skill, but home runs are sexy, and sex sells.
This phenomenon wasn’t born with this commercial, either. It has been the case for as long as baseball has been around.
In the mid-1920’s, Ty Cobb was revered as the best baseball player alive. At that time, batting average was the go-to statistic in determining how good a player was at hitting. Cobb won the batting title twelve times, and is the all time leader in batting average with a preposterous .366 mark. But he was overshadowed by a new player. A man who couldn’t slap the ball through the infield holes at will, but could hit the ball farther than anyone else in the game: George Herman “Babe” Ruth.
Cobb, who was a notoriously sour human being, was furious that fans wanted to see moonshots as opposed to old school baseball. He argued that hitting home runs required far less skill than slap hitting and bunting, and he proved his point by launching five home runs in a two game span in May of 1925. After showing fans how “easy” power hitting was, he returned to his slap-hitting self.
In the end, he couldn’t win back the fans’ favor, and the Great Bambino dethroned the Georgia Peach as greatest, and most popular baseball player alive.
But will the nation’s long standing fascination with home runs survive its greatest challenge yet? Players are going yard at an all-time high rate, but it’s at the expense of averages and contact percentages. While a power surge may be attractive in the immediate, it doesn’t seem to be sustainable in my opinion.
Hard bodies used to be the desired composition for men and women everywhere, and now there are movements in support of the Dad Bod and replacing “traditional” models with those whose bodies are more in line with the average human being. The same may be happening to baseball. The more home runs we see, the more we’ll become numb to them and they’ll lose their sex appeal.
In addition, players have no incentive to keep the ball out of the air. It’s not just chicks who dig the long ball now, but front offices too. Analytics have rendered stats like batting average obsolete, and every statistic that accurately reflects value takes power into account. In today’s game, being a slugger pays, and kids are being taught that from a young age.
I’ll be interested to see if this phenomenon is reflected in this year’s Little League World Series, but I’ll have to wait a few months to see about that.
Maybe I sound like an old “get off my lawn” purist, but I can’t help but worry about the game of baseball when I check the scoring summaries and see five solo homers in a row. Singles, doubles, stolen bases, and situational hitting are dying, while the home run is thriving.
I don’t know what the solution is (aside from de-juicing the baseballs), and I don’t know how fans will react if the game continues on its current path. I honestly have no idea. I’m really just rambling at this point. The one thing I do know, though, is that I miss seeing timely singles and small ball. Call me old fashioned, but there has to be a happy medium.
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