David N. Townsend
Baseball Journal

June 26, 1998
Midseason meanderings

In this edition:

Inter-im (on interleague play)
The other historic season (who is having it?)
Tater updater (How are the homers going?)
All Star squad (My annual forecast)

Inter-im.  Okay, here we are, almost at midseason 1998, and there's a lot to talk about. You may want to print this one out, rather than read it on-line.  

Is it just me, or is this turning out to be the most entertaining baseball season in many years?  We've got McGwire's nightly pyrotechnics, along with the slugging of Sosa and Griffey (but not the entire major leagues, see below).  We've got Kerry Wood and Hideki Irabu and Rolando Arrojo and Bartolo Colon, reviving the notion that pitching can excell in the 1990s (especially if you've got a lot of vowels in your name).  We've got an incredible Yankee juggernaut, but also a scrappy, loveable Red Sox underdog.  We've got the Cubs in a pennant race, big names changing teams, perfect game, 20 strikeouts, winning streaks, beanball brawls . . . is there anything more we could want from baseball?

Oh, and we've also got interleague play, for the second year.  All that good stuff, and they had to go mess with it.  Let me go on record right now as declaring that I really hate interleague play.  It's not just because I'm in an AL-only Rotisserie league, and don't know 1/3 of the NL players.  It's not really because I'm in love with the DH and don't care to see pitchers bat or double-switches. It's not even because it can unfairly mess with the pennant races and causes ludicrous 2-game homestands.  I just can't get into the distortion of the schedule, the games, the players, the rules, the whole concept in combination.  I think of the interleague games as exhibition games, that we just have to endure until the real season starts again, like playing against your Triple-A team.

What really galls me, however, is the hype that the major leagues, in cahoots with the sports media, have attached to the interleague games, as if they've discovered some magic formula to bring baseball back to popularity and prosperity.  Sure, last year average attendance was much higher at the interleague games than at regular games: it was a novelty, and curiosity built from the moment tickets went on sale, especially for teams like the Yankees and Braves, and those with a handful of superstars who had never played in certain cities.  But that newness is wearing off, and while the top teams will always draw well, there is no more interest to see the visiting Phillies or Royals or Expos or Devil Rays than there is to see mediocre in-league teams.

But what about the great new "rivalries" that are being created?  In Chicago, for example, the Cubs-White Sox series set some kind of a record for a 4-game set at Wrigley, drawing an average of 30-something thousand per game!  The Yankees and Mets are doing the same thing!  Isn't this a great way to stimulate fan interest??

You know, sometimes the utter stupidity of the billionaires who run baseball is downright scary.  Look, the Cubs are averaging, what, 20,000+ attendance per home game?  And the White Sox are at about 15,000 per home game, I believe.  This means that, on any given day (when both teams are home), there are about 35,000 or so people in Chicago who are interested in going to a major league baseball game.  So, when they combine the two games into one park, why are we supposed to be amazed by the fact that 35,000 people show up?  They think these are new fans, who wouldn't go to games otherwise?  It's the same fans!  All you did was take away one of their options, and force them to go to the same game all at once!  What is the big deal?

Besides, a rivalry is supposed to be between fans and teams from different cities, who can learn to hate one another's home town as much as they hate the other players.  The Boston-New York or New York-Los Angeles rivalries are as much about differences of culture and attitude between the cities as they are about sports teams.  Within the city of New York, most baseball fans have no problem rooting for both the Yankees and Mets.  When they play against each other, there's no heated rivalry, no chanting "New York sucks"; in fact, probably most fans don't even care which team wins, since they can find a reason to be happy either way.

I can only hope that the players' union stands up to the owners on this one, and relegates the era of interleague play to a brief footnote in baseball history.  They can keep the DH, I've given up opposing that.  But please don't force me to watch any more Phillies and Marlins games.

The other historic season.  After we get through gawking at McGwire, Sosa, and the other bashers, after Jose Canseco's eyebrow-raising pursuit of 40-40 is off the agenda, let us recognize perhaps the least-heralded amazing offensive story of this baseball season.  Is it A-Rod or I-Rod? No.  Is it Juan Gonzalez?  Not quite.  Jim Thome?  John Olerud?  Doug Glanville?  Darin Erstad? Bernie Williams?  Nope.

For my money, the most remarkable sub-plot of this fun 1998 season is none other than Rickey Henderson!  At this moment, the 39-year-old Rickey is quietly once again leading the majors in stolen bases with 32, and on a pace that would land him about 70 SB for the season.  Because we're so used to the old Henderson stealing bases every year, we may overlook the magnitude of this achievement.  Henderson himself hasn't stolen as many as 65 bases since 1990.  In the past 80 years, there have been, by my count, fewer than 20 players who have stolen over 70 bases in a season.  The oldest player to do it was Lou Brock, who was 35 years old when he broke Muary Wills's record by stealing 118 bases.  The next oldest 70-stealers were Wills himself, and Ron LeFlore, who stole 94 and 97 bases, respectively, both at age 32.

Of contemporary players, only Otis Nixon has come close to the pace Henderson is setting at his age, when he stole 59 bases last year at age 38.  If Henderson continues at this rate, and winds up with 70-75 steals, it will be in the same ballpark as Paul Molitor's 1996 season (225 hits at age 40), and Nolan Ryan's 1989 campaign (301 strikeouts at age 42), and another convincing testament to the wonders of modern conditioning.  Heck, I'm 39 years old, and I couldn't steal a pack of gum.

Tater updater.  Okay, I won't dwell on it, but my thesis concerning reduced offensive output (see April, February, etc.) remains accurate as we approach the halfway point of the season.  What? you say -- what about McGwire, Sosa, Griffey . . .?  Well, okay, those guys and some others are evidently benefiting from diluted pitching staffs or whatever.  That would make sense, as they personally are great hitters, and to the extent they face lesser pitching, they might hit a few more dingers.  In McGwire's case, he's doing what he's always done, just staying healthy, so far.  He may well prove me wrong and hit 62, or 72 homers.  Sosa and Griffey will slack off to about 50 apiece, and I still expect McGwire to hit a wall, either physical or psychological, and drop short of 60, but we'll see.  It sure is amazing watching his blasts night after night.

But as for the league as a whole, my bigger argument has always been about the much anticipated overall increase in slugging that was supposed to accompany expansion.  That's what hasn't occurred, at all.  Here are the latest numbers, through June 21, 1998:

Total major league home runs 2236
Total runs scored 10,558
Total games played 1102
Home runs per game '98 2.03
Runs per game '98 9.58
Home runs per game, '97 2.06
Runs per game, '97 9.61
Home runs per game, '96 2.19
Runs per game, '96 10.07

So, total home runs per game remain down from last year, and way down from 1996.  Runs scored per game are also down.  Interestingly, since the late April analysis, the home run pace has increased and the runs scored pace has declined.  Maybe pitchers are getting the ball over the plate more, walking fewer but giving up more taters.  Or maybe the Moon is in the Seventh House. In any event, we're halfway through the season, and no expansion explosion yet.

All-Star squad.   My annual futile attempt to guess all of the members of the A.L. All Star team, to be announced in a few days.  I quit doing the National League a few years ago, and that would be even harder now, since with two extra teams they have to spread the talent even thinner.  My assumptions are 28 total players, at least one from each team, the starters as voted by the fans, and a reasonable distribution across positions.  Here's my roster:

C.  I. Rodriguez, Tex; S. Alomar, Cle.  Not much to choose from, here, so Alomar is the default backup, although he's been hurting lately.  If they keep him out, I'd guess Steinbach.

1B.  J. Thome, Cle; Thomas, Chi.; Palmeiro, Bal.  No way does Thomas deserve it this year over Erstad or Vaughn or even Morris or King.  But he's a legend, and the White Sox need somebody on the roster.

2B.  R. Alomar, Bal; Easley, Det.  You could make a case for Durham, which would allow keeping Thomas off at 1B, but I can't see leaving Easley off the team with the year he's having.  Hard to leave off Todd Walker, too.

SS.  A. Rodriguez, Sea; D. Jeter, NY; N. Garciaparra, Bos.  Hargrove has hinted at picking Vizquel, but that would be scandalous in this field.

3B.  C. Ripken, Bal; D. Palmer, KC.  This leaves off Brosius, who's having a super comeback year.  But there are very few KC candidates, and Palmer probably deserves it the most.

OF.  Griffey, Sea; Gonzalez, Tex; Lofton, Cle; Grieve, Oak; Higginson, Det; Canseco, Tor.  Interestingly, there aren't as many candidates in the OF this year as usual.  You could put Erstad here, and he certainly deserves it.  Bernie Williams is hurt, or he'd have to make the team.  Belle and Ramirez are borderline.

P.  P. Martinez, Bos; R. Arrojo, TB; B. Radke, Min; R. Clemens, Tor.; B. Colon, Cle; H. Irabu, NY; T. Percival, Ana; J. Wetteland, Tex; T. Gordon, Bos, R. Myers, Tor.  Arrojo and Radke are their teams' only representatives, but they deserve it anyway.  Irabu could be Cone, but Cone pitches the Sunday before the All Star game.

See how tough this is?  Only 2 members of the mighty Yankees make this squad, and if you try to squeeze any more in, somebody else gets bumped.  There will be a lot of screaming about Mo Vaughn and Brosius and Walker and Erstad, etc.  By the way, the only starters who don't "deserve" it based upon this year will be Ripken and Lofton, and possibly Roberto Alomar, and none of them is a terrible choice.

Any comments?  Send them in soon, before the squads are picked.  I'll report back on this and all other developments, around August.


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