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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

July 19, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Baseball, PEDs, and the complicity of big-league owners

By Ed Harris

Ed Harris is a technology entrepreneur and author who lives in Bellevue. His most recent book is “Fifty Shades of Schwarz,” and his next work, “Let’s Pretend We’re Christians and Play in the Snow,” is due out later this summer.

Did you watch Major League Baseball’s “Skills Expo” the night before the All-Star Game? What did you enjoy most? Seeing the infield turn a double play on a ground ball to shortstop? Watching the right fielder hit the cutoff man on a throw from the warning track?

No, of course, you didn’t see any of that, for what I described above is entirely fictitious. What you saw, instead, was the Home Run Derby,  a competition among the game’s top sluggers to see who can hit the most balls over the fences.

It’s worth remembering that baseball is a business. The owners and the team executives working for them may not always make smart decisions – everyone’s human, after all – but they certainly are motivated by doing what makes good financial sense. And in baseball, from Babe Ruth to today, nothing generates interest and boosts ticket sales like the home run, a hit so prodigious it has a multitude of nicknames: dinger, tater, round tripper, moon shot, gopher ball, going yard, etc.  A single is just a base hit, but a homer excites the imagination.

When I was a little boy growing up in the early 1960s, the world seemed larger than it does today. One part of it undeniably was: Yankee Stadium. Just like the Biblical patriarchs I learned about in Hebrew School – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the Yankees had their hallowed figures: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and my boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle. All of them were not only great players, but outstanding sluggers, and their prodigious home-run totals, such as Babe Ruth’s career mark of 714, had a certain magic to them, similar to the 613 commandments of the Torah.

Old Yankee Stadium was super-sized: 457 feet to straightaway center field, with the monuments to those same team patriarchs in in the field of play, and a ridiculous 461 feet to the power alley in left-center field.

And Yankee Stadium wasn’t alone having such Brobdingnagian outfields. Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field was 462 feet to its deepest point. The Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, was a preposterous 483 feet deep in center. Perhaps the most famous catch in baseball history, Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder grab of a deep ball at the warning track, hit by Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series, would have been a home run in any modern ball park.

Today, a center field of 460 feet would seem like a ridiculous throwback to a more primitive era, like top hats or penny-farthing bicycles. The new Yankee Stadium is a compact 408 feet in center, as is Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.  Most major-league parks are similarly sized. At least in this instance, my perception of things having been larger in childhood is not a trick of memory. Baseball parks have gotten a lot smaller, with the deepest fences pulled in by as much as 75 feet, almost the length of a basketball court.

Obviously, smaller ballparks mean more home runs.  The career leaders in four-baggers, Babe Ruth excepted, are all from the modern era.

A home run is generally a ball hit over the fence, but the distance from home plate to the fence itself is variable and subject to change. The owners have steadily decreased this distance over the past 50  years, making home runs dramatically easier. Former greats like Mantle or Mays must have hit a lot of long fly balls to center field during their prime. How many more home runs would they have accumulated playing in modern stadiums?

Most of the discussion about the cheapening of home-run records centers around the increasing evidence of players using performance-enhancing drugs. But before you rush to condemn players’ behavior, remember that the choice to take steroids and other substances was fundamentally a business decision. Athletes doped themselves to make more money. Why do the owners, who moved in the fences to make home runs easier and the game more profitable, get a hall pass on their actions, while the players who make the sport possible in the first place are castigated for their greed? Weren’t both groups responding to the fact that more home runs equal more money?

Oh, wait, don’t bother to answer. Someone just hit a long clout over the 408-foot sign in center field. I don’t want to miss the replay.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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