Earlier this month, an obscure and undistinguished spare part of the Cincinnati Reds named Scooter Gennett took an illustrious seat in baseball history right alongside the fabled likes of Lou Gehrig, Chuck Klein, and Willie Mays. Scooter hit four home runs in a single game; four in a row. He’s only the 17th chap to do that in baseball’s interminable annals.
Little Scooter—he’s only 5-10 and 180 – is a utility man, which means he’s only hanging onto a job by a thread. In four years of comparable duty with the Brewers, prior to scrounging a gig in Cincinnati, Scooter hit .263 with a grand total of 35 homers. And then on a balmy night on the banks of the Ohio – in the Reds’ lineup only because someone got sick – Scooter Gennett did what certified immortals Gehrig and Mays and legendary behemoths Rocky Colavito and Mighty Joe Adcock have done.
Sure it was charming. The Scooter Gennetts are baseball’s bedrock, the honest and honorable grunts who labor on through thick and thin, and the good ones do make a difference. It’s always delightful when a Scooter Gennett has a moment with destiny. But when you strip away all the sentimental mush, it makes no sense.
Admittedly, not all the other members of the elite “Four Homer Circle” were the glory of their times. Until Scooter wandered in, Pat Seerey, who did it for the White Sox in 1948, was probably the most improbable of the celebrants. In seven years of slogging American League outfields Pat, never a regular, hit only .224 with 86 homers. But he was a swarthy character well known and feared for one thing – his ability to hit a baseball a long way, if but when rarely he connected.
There are so many seasons, so many games, so many at-bats, so many variations upon, so many possibilities that the idea that some unknown slug could come out of the woodwork and do something Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth never did becomes plausible, as if the law of averages, which, in baseball, stretches to infinity, dictated it.
Still, that doesn’t adequately justify the Scooter Gennett phenomenon. Something is up in Baseball, something from under the table. Again! There’s more skullduggery afoot, one fears. Are they playing with the baseball again, juicing the ball to guarantee more offense, more homers, more exit-velocity, and all the other wild and crazy stuff that the powers that be, however misguidedly, somehow believe it’s what the fans yearn for? Evidence begins to mount.
Last week, in a story that got nowhere near the attention it deserved, the results of a scientific study of baseballs conducted at Washington State University’s Sports Science Laboratory and commissioned by fanatically ever-vigilant Sabermetrics were revealed and they strongly suggest – at least to simple-minded skeptics like me – that the Lords of Baseball are up to their monkeyshines again.
The researchers tested baseballs in use since the middle of the 2015 season into the present one. They say they’ve determined balls now in use have what they technically term “a higher coefficient of restitution’ (COR).” In other words, and in the layman’s terms we love, they have more “bounce!” The seams on the ball, they say, have been altered, which allows all baseballs smote to travel an average of seven feet farther and at increased speed that is averaging 1.4 miles per hour. If more bounce to the ball seems trivial, please understand it ain’t.
They further believe – and this is important – that this near-microscopic but crucial “alteration” could not have occurred by chance and must have been authorized. Which traces the plot all the way to the commissioner’s office. Avoiding any real discussion of the issue so far, the overlords have essentially dismissed it by ignoring it. But they can’t get away with that.
Doctoring the ball is an old trick mainly because those who own and run the game far more than those who play, coach, or manage it simplistically believe the homer is what fans most yearn to see and, therefore, what sells the most tickets.
Not that juicing hasn’t sometimes been justifiable, most notably in the early 1920’s after the Black Sox scandal, when the Babe came along to “save the game.” Other, less urgent, instances came in the ’30’s when the homer became the game’s signature stroke and early ‘70’s after pitching threatened to become too dominant. At the beginning of the infamous Steroid Era, when the homer barrage first began to look ridiculous, a juiced baseball was the immediate suspect, remaining one mainly because Czar Bud Selig refused to acknowledge the real issue, let alone come to grips with it.
Baseball does not need another bogus siege on its hallowed record book, or another bitter controversy about skimmers and skirters conspiring to achieve one. The home run could be booming out of control again; the surge since last mid-season has been stunning.
With the current season roughly 40 percent done, at least a half dozen hitters, led by the new breed of outsized bruisers – Aaron Judge, Marcus Thames, Cody Bellinger et al. – project to more than 50 homers for the season. Even more impressive, several dozen more sluggers project to finish with between 30 and 40, a feat long deemed prodigious.
These guys are bloody maulers. They don’t need no stinking “alteration in the seams” to make it easier.