Maybe we all dug the long ball more than we'd like to admit

Posted: August 27, 2014

BEFORE THE well-deserved inductions of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine into the Baseball Hall of Fame last month, an old, familiar advertisement from 1998 made the rounds on the various social-media platforms of the day.

"Chicks dig the long ball" was a Nike campaign that took off, thanks, in large part, to the deadpan deliveries of the two everyman-looking Cy Young arms, who, after watching women fawn over the batting-practice blasts of Mark McGwire, embarked on a cross-training program that included bench presses and biceps curls.

"Face it," supermodel Heidi Klum would say in one of the follow-up ads of the wildly successful campaign, "a low ERA just isn't sexy."

Baseball attendance is down by nearly 400,000 from a year ago. Sixteen of the 30 teams have experienced attendance declines, although none as exponentially as the 523,000 drop the Phillies have experienced from only a year ago.

High hopes? Not so much these days.

And while the locals' drop is understandable given the team's losses, missteps and seeming lack of young talent or a long-range plan, explaining the precipitous attendance declines in places such as Detroit and Atlanta is more tricky. Both teams reached the postseason a year ago and both teams have spent the season vying for playoff spots. Yet the Braves are down by more than 157,000 from last year at this time, and the Tigers are down by 113,000.

Sometimes these numbers can be explained locally through the prism of expectation vs. reality. Braves fans might sense another late collapse by their team, and Tigers fans, after consecutive seasons in which their team lost an AL Championship Series, then a World Series and then another ALCS, might be less enthralled by their current second-place status.

But there does seem to be an undercurrent that underlines Heidi's axiom of those steroid-pumped days of the 1990s and early 2000s. Because as exciting - and honest - as it was to watch Doc Halladay throw that perfect game and no-hitter in a Phillies uniform, or Cliff Lee handcuff the Yankees for two games in the 2009 World Series, or Cole Hamels' coming of age in 2008, I wonder whether a secret ballot of Phillies fans wouldn't produce a landslide preference for the 2007 summer, or the summer of '93, when a six-run lead wasn't enough, and a six-run deficit didn't automatically start all car engines.

Because it's not just chicks who love the long ball. We all do. Big kids, little kids, mommies and daddies all go to games hoping to see balls bouncing off and over the wall, a slugfest preferably, but a home-team blowout would be fine, too.

Five major league players had hit 30 or more home runs before last night's games. In 1998, the year in which the historic home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa recaptured baseball as America's pastime, the range of the top-10 home-run hitters went from McGwire's 70 to Andres Galarraga's 44. Three years later, when Bonds hit his 73 home runs, seven players finished with 49 or more.

It's not only the crackdown on steroid use that has taken the air out of baseball. A decade ago, when power-hitting outfielders seemed to be falling out of the sky, scouts bemoaned the scarcity of power arms. Now every team seems to have a few young guys whose fastballs habitually reach the mid-90s, and power-hitting outfielders are so scarce that the Red Sox just gave 27-year-old Cuban defector Rusney Castillo a 7-year, $72.5 million deal that was at least $15 million more than what many observers projected.

Mind you, the Red Sox have one of the more respected minor league systems in baseball. So if they are this desperate . . .

How desperate does the Phillies' rebuilding challenge - er, sorry, retooling - shape up to be?

The league average in hits from 1993 to the end of the decade was above 9.0 hits, peaking at 9.33 in 1996 and 1999. It has taken a steady decline since 2006, a combination likely of two trends occurring simultaneously: an emphasis on pitching and the crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs.

No doubt, the game is cleaner today than it was a decade ago.

It just doesn't seem as exciting. At least for the casual fans who move the attendance meters of major league parks.

Nearly 2 decades after that historic ad campaign, Glavine and Maddux got the last laugh with their inductions this summer. They are first-ballot Hall of Famers, dominating an election that included decreasing support for many of those tainted long-ball hitters of their day. I'm happy for them, for sure, but I am more sad than angry about the so-called cheaters who ruled their day, who filled the seats and brought the sport back in a big, loud thunderous way.

They cheated, yeah. They made some numbers lie, sure.

But not all of them. The attendance figures then, and the ones now, don't lie, and suggest the same thing.

That they were just giving the fans what they wanted then, and what they now seem to miss.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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