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A broken record?

The Baltimore Sun

The "natural" home run king. That's what some would call Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard should he pass Roger Maris' pre-1998 record for home runs in a single season.

The title implies that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were fueled by cocktails of performance enhancers and would have been nabbed had baseball's current drug testing policies been in place. It also implies that Howard's feats have come in a "normal" baseball context, one more like 1961 or 1942 or 1985 than like the offense-crazed period from 1998 to 2002.

The celebration of Howard dovetails with a preseason sentiment that baseball was somehow emerging from the dark woods.

"We stand now on the cusp of not just another season but of another era, as vulnerable as lovers on the rebound," wrote Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, one of the nation's most influential baseball reporters. "What was sold and bought as a 'golden age of baseball' in the restorative years after the 1994-95 strike - all prettied up by wild cards, flirtatious new ballparks and, mostly, the almighty home runs - turned out to be a lie."

He went on to herald a new, clean age, one in which all-around athleticism would trump brute strength.

The numbers, however, say that hasn't been the case. Despite harsher penalties for steroid use and newly imposed penalties for the use of amphetamines, homers (about 2.21 a game through Tuesday) are up from last season (about 2.06 a game). And though this season's totals will fall below the all-time peaks of 1999 and 2000, they will be far greater than in most seasons in baseball history.

Players are homering more than they did in McGwire and Sosa's now-infamous summer of 1998. For a little perspective, consider that teams combined for 1.57 homers a game in 1983, the last time the Orioles won the World Series. They averaged 1.91 a game in 1961, when Maris set his record. And they averaged .75 homers a game in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit his 60.

Many of the game's best hitters - Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner - are posting career-best home run rates. Old workhorses Jim Thome and Frank Thomas have resurrected themselves. A new generation of mashers, led by Howard, has emerged. Even Bonds, the slugger most hounded by steroid allegations, has hit more homers than all but one player in history who started a season at the age of 41.

The game's best teams - the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers - rank within the league's top 10 in homers.

So rumors of the home run's demise in the face of more stringent drug testing have been greatly exaggerated.

"I've seen more homers," Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons said. "I really haven't seen much of a difference. From what the testing showed in the past, we had a very low number of guys who were on [performance enhancers] anyway. It's kind of good to see the numbers have actually increased."

"I think it's the same exact game," teammate Kevin Millar added. "I think it's funny how we talk about all this testing stuff. I think pitchers are throwing harder than ever. I've seen more 100-mph fastballs this year than I think I ever have in my 10 years. Home runs - nobody's skipped a beat. You know what, guys have off years, career years. Guys hit home runs and everything clicks right. It's such a tired story, the steroid thing. It's like if a guy hits 30 and then all of a sudden, hits 18, it's because of the testing. If he has a career year and hits 38, he's on the juice. So you're in a no-win situation."

The numbers lead to three possible conclusions:

The impact of drugs on baseball's power numbers was always exaggerated.

Baseball's best have found a way around the new testing policies, possibly in the form of human growth hormone.

The game is entirely too complex to pin down with simple cause-and-effect theories.

'It was overblown'

Is it possible that baseball writers undercompensated by not raising drug questions during the homer blitz of the late 1990s and have since overcompensated by linking every great baseball achievement to chemical aid? Well, the players certainly think so.

"One hundred percent yes, it absolutely tells us that it was overblown," Gibbons said. "You just hope the media realizes that and the fans see what's going on now and see that it's the same game. What guys are doing is legit. We'll see how they react, but I'm glad to see things going the way they are."

Players have tended to defend their peers, even against the darkest steroid allegations. Bonds is the most gifted player they had ever seen, clean or otherwise. And they aren't about to say that pills or needles can create superstars.

"Baseball's a very tough game," Millar said. "It's always been a very tough game. I don't care what you take or what you don't take. Hand-eye coordination. You're hitting a moving object. Guys are throwing split-finger fastballs, sliders, changeups, curveballs. It doesn't matter what you're on, who's on what or what you think somebody's on. It's a tough game."

Howard is, in many respects, the perfect answer to those who believed no one but drug-fueled musclemen could hit 60 home runs. At 6 feet 4, 252 pounds, he seems big in the old Frank Howard sense, with large limbs and shoulders and a bit of a belly. He is no lithe youth transformed into rippling behemoth as Bonds and Sosa were. Better yet from a fan's standpoint, he has faced drug testing backed by stiff penalties from the day he began playing in the minors.

"Everybody loves a big, home run-hitting superstar, and Ryan Howard's the next generation of what Barry Bonds has been for us and Mark McGwire," Millar said. "Guys that have a chance to hit 60 home runs, you root for it. He's young, he's exciting, and the testing policy has been in place so there's never going to be an asterisk or all this baloney that people talk about."

Some also predicted before the season that new tests for amphetamines would leave players without a traditional crutch - greenies - and lead to more sluggish play in August and September. Former Orioles reliever Jason Grimsley painted a picture of routine amphetamine use in baseball in statements to federal investigators earlier this year.

Overlooking hGH

But if the absence of amphetamines has made a significant difference, it's not apparent in the statistics. On the Orioles and other teams, some players (Millar and Ramon Hernandez) are having strong finishes and others (Corey Patterson and Melvin Mora) are not. The same could have been said for virtually every team in every season of major league history.

So maybe drugs didn't play that big a role in the offensive explosion of the past decade. Not so fast say those who still see a gaping hole in baseball's testing policy - the lack of testing for human growth hormone.

When Grimsley was caught receiving a package of hGH at his Arizona home earlier this year, he told federal agents what many had suspected, that at least some players had turned to the hormone in the face of stricter tests for anabolic steroids, according to federal documents. Who's to say Howard, Pujols and the whole lot aren't taking hGH or some designer drug for which no test exists, skeptics say.

"I've told everybody from the start that this is a facade," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State epidemiologist and longtime anti-steroid crusader. "Nothing's new. Baseball's still in its infancy with this, because now, guys are learning to play the drug game as NFL players and Olympic athletes have done to evade testing programs for years."

Yesalis finds it frustrating that fans and reporters are so eager to anoint new heroes of a supposedly clean era. He's watched the cycle in track and field. One star, say Tim Montgomery, tests positive and is shoved aside for a new clean hero, Justin Gatlin. Then Gatlin tests positive. And on and on it goes. So pardon him for being skeptical of Howard and other new stars.

"He may be clean," Yesalis said. "But I've been doing this for 30 years and I'm not a moron."

Until fans stop buying tickets and filling athletes' pockets (baseball is on pace to set an all-time attendance record this year), nothing will change because the motivations to excel at any cost are too great, he added. childs.walker@baltsun.com

Home run pace

A look at home runs per game in major league baseball the past decade:

Year HRs per game

2006 *2.21

2005 2.06m 2004 2.25 2003 2.14

2002 2.09

2001 2.25

1999 2.28 1998 2.08

1997 2.05

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