It is one of the basic assumptions that govern team sports. There is a clear -- if indefinable -- advantage that bestows on the team playing at home, and it is illustrated in the home/road split of almost every major college and professional sport.
Major-league baseball is becoming the exception.
The percentage of games won by the home team has tumbled during the past two years, from a 10-year average of .543 (1984 to 1993) to a combined .514 since the start of the 1994 season (through Saturday's games). Through the first five weeks of the 1995 season, in fact, major-league teams had combined to post a losing record at home.
How can this be? Baseball is the one sport in which the home team has a definite written-in-the-rules advantage -- the final at-bat. It also is the only major team sport that allows a club to tailor the size and shape of its home field to the strengths and weaknesses of its personnel.
"That's just one of those things," said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, whose team is tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second-worst home record (5-11) in the majors. "It's like what's going on in the NBA playoffs right now. Nobody is winning at home. Nobody has an answer for that."
That would be the "aberration" theory. Cumulative home winning percentage is a variable thing that can be affected by any number of factors. It goes up and down each year, and this year it has gone down because the six winningest teams in the majors have played extremely well on the road.
Phillies manager Jim Fregosi says he thinks he knows the answer, though he would rather not be right.
"I just think that the fans are upset because of the strike . . . and they have every right to be," Fregosi said. "There is a degree of hostility for the home team, which makes it much more difficult. The home-field advantage is not there."
The labor dispute? It's pretty clear that fan discontent has affected attendance throughout the major leagues, but could a subtle change in the energy level of the fans actually have an effect on the performance of the home team?
"Sure it does," Fregosi said. "You can sense it. There's a difference. It's supposed to be easier to play at home. Fans are upset, and even the ones who come out here are still angry."
That may be the only logical explanation for a curious statistical fact. During the past 15 years, the two seasons with the lowest combined home winning percentage were 1981 and 1994 -- the two years the schedule has been significantly shortened by labor strife. The 1995 season would be the third, and home winning percentage is far lower than it has been at any point during that period.
4 "It all leads back to the strike," Fregosi said.
It might seem like an abstract concept that would be difficult to document, but the fan element is clearly evident in the other major sports and it can be illustrated in a baseball setting.
The Minnesota Twins took advantage of the most pronounced home-field advantage in baseball to win world championships in 1987 and 1991 -- getting into the '87 playoffs despite the third-worst road record (29-52) in the major leagues and winning the World Series without taking a game on the road. The Twins adapted well to the quirky Metrodome, but it was the deafening roar of the sellout crowds that made the environment so hostile to the opposition. Now, with the Twins averaging under 14,000 fans, the club has the worst home record in the American League.
"All you have to do is look at Cleveland and see the difference between 70,000 empty seats and 40,000 full seats," said ESPN baseball commentator Chris Berman. "The Indians moved into their new stadium, and they had the best home record in 'D baseball the first year. There's definitely an energy thing."
The Indians also fielded a vastly improved team in 1994, but there was little question that quiet and cavernous Cleveland Stadium had played a depressive role in the club's 40-year postseason drought. The Indians' home winning percentage last year (.686) was the highest by far for a Cleveland team since the Indians won the American League pennant in 1954.
The Cleveland experience averted a steeper drop in home winning percentage across the board last year. This season, the Indians have won 12 of their first 16 games at Jacobs Field, which would seem to argue against the discontented fan theory, except that the Indians are one of the teams that has been spared the fan backlash that has been so evident almost everywhere else.
Of course, there are individual explanations for every statistical peak and valley. The Indians are winning big, no matter where they play. The Atlanta Braves have the pitching to win anywhere, and they have won 100 of their past 155 road games (dating to 1993) to prove it. The Dodgers are 5-11 at home this year, but they have yet to play a game at Dodger Stadium with All-Star catcher and top run producer Mike Piazza in the lineup.
"It goes in cycles," Lasorda said. "We've always had a good home club. We just had one really rough homestand. We lost a lot of tough ballgames. Maybe the next homestand we'll reverse it."
It may be more difficult to explain the Cubs, who are 15-6 on the road but only 7-7 at Wrigley Field, or many of the other 10 teams that have better records on the road than at home.
Lasorda may not agree that fan lethargy is dragging his club down at home, but he does not dispute that the labor dispute has changed the mood of the fans in the stands. He was on the field Opening Night at Joe Robbie Stadium when the crowd booed the Dodgers and the hometown Florida Marlins during pre-game introductions. He has seen the same kind of thing on several other road stops.
"It makes me sick," he said, "because it is something that we created. We allowed this to happen, and by doing it we created interest in other sports. Yeah, I was there in Miami, and it disturbed me a great deal when we took our hats off to the fans and they booed the crap out of us. Rightly so."