July 1 is upon us and with it the MLB is officially at mid-season; trends have developed, contenders have emerged, and pretenders will soon be relegated to also-ran status.
Traditionally, Independence Day and the All-Star Game which soon follows are times when the prospective winners are noted. It’s not always a done deal, but it is a useful signpost.
Earlier I noted that 2010 was being distinguished as a year when pitching was once again dominant, and also noted some of the young hurlers who were establishing themselves on the scene. Nothing has happened to change my mind about that. On June 25th we witnessed the fourth no-hitter of the season as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Edwin Jackson tossed a 149-pitch, eight-walk, six-strikeout no-no at the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s the first time since 1991 there have been four or more gems tossed as complete games. Is it a coincidence that 1991 is also before the Performance-Enhancing Drug Era truly began?
In fact, what we may be witnessing is a return to “normal”. MLB and baseball in general still have to contend with the roughly 10-year period (1995-2004) when steroids and Human Growth Hormone compounds, the infamous “the cream” and “the clear” detailed in Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams’ “Game of Shadows” created such disproportion and dishonesty in the game. As in past eras, power-hitting and offense in general is once again at a premium; no more banjo hitters swatting 20+ homers.
We may recall during the late 1990’s as power numbers rose there was much speculation on how the new ballparks coming on line were hitter-friendly “bandboxes” and how the baseball itself was “juiced”. Coming off the disastrous Lockout of 1994, MLB owners, agents and players turned a blind eye to the seemingly rampant drug abuse as the need to rebuild fan interest, trust and loyalty became the paramount objective. After the 1919 Black Sox Scandal MLB turned to the “rabbit ball” and banned “the spitter” in order to regain primacy in a much simpler age, and they were blessed to have Babe Ruth as a phenomenon who captivated the nation. In the late 90’s it was the McGwire-Sosa Home Run Chase of 1998 that brought the fans back.
Legitimate power hitters are a treasure; as the well-known commercial proclaimed, “Chicks dig the long ball.” The real tragedy of the period is that truly gifted hitters like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds felt they needed that extra “edge.” It is a mark of shame that will taint Alex Rodriguez’ achievement when he inevitably eclipses Bonds’ all-time home run record in the not-too-distant future.
While we note and are saddened by the miscreants, let’s shout out big-time for Ken Griffey Jr., truly one of the great power-hitters of all time. Ken’s retirement left him with 630 homers and if his body hadn’t betrayed him as he entered his 30’s, the record surely would have been his. He avoided the urge to sully his reputation and his records. When he enters Cooperstown on the first ballot in the summer of 2016, there will be no asterisk next to his name, only glory.