Focus on home runs cheapens the game of baseball

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    By BETH PALMER

    When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa assaulted Roger Maris’ home run record last summer, they threw some gasoline on a nasty little fire that’s been growing ever larger over the past few seasons — a fire that, year by year, is cheapening the great American pastime.

    Cameras and reporters followed these men’s every at-bat, anxious to be there when history was made. When McGwire did hit that historic blast, it was among the greatest moments the game has ever offered.

    But the chase is over. It’s time to direct attention back to the game.

    Baseball’s intrigue lies in its nuances: hitting behind the runner, putting on the squeeze play, stealing a base.

    The game’s strategy is its beauty. People who think baseball is boring probably do so because they aren’t well-acquainted with what’s really going on out there. Do you throw the fastball to give your catcher a shot at throwing out the speedy lead-off man on first or do you go with the slow curve in hopes the runner isn’t going and you can throw the lefty off and get him to pull it to the right side for a 4-6-3 double play? These are the things that make the game fun to watch 162 days a year.

    And yet, turn on SportsCenter on any given night, and the highlights you’ll see from the evening’s diamond action consist mostly of the home runs that were hit that night — whether they were hit by the winning team or not.

    Why is this? Sure, seeing how far a guy can crank one is entertaining, but home runs aren’t baseball. Hitting the ball clear out of the park is nice, but it spits on the carefully thought-out strategies and tendencies managers rely on so heavily. And, while a nice three-run shot can quickly shift momentum in a game, the truth is, most home runs are rally killers.

    Think about it. A team starts stringing together a few hits. Players are moving from first to third and the opposing pitcher is distracted by runners dancing off the base. Then a guy jacks one.

    All of a sudden, it’s all gone. There are no runners threatening to steal or ready to break on the crack of the bat. The next guy comes up looking at three empty bases. Sure, there are a couple more runs on the board, but, more often than not, a team’s scoring for the inning is done.

    But, for some reason that completely escapes me, the home run is still all anybody seems to want to talk about.

    The Fox Saturday game of the week nearly always includes the St. Louis Cardinals game — for no other reason than that they want to make a big deal every time McGwire comes to the plate. Actually, make that a major deal. Even in regions that aren’t subjected to watching the Cardinals week after week, the local game is interrupted every time McGwire comes to the plate. The same is true for Cardinal viewers when the Fox regional action also includes a Seattle Mariners game, when fans trying to watch another game are interrupted every time Ken Griffey, Jr., steps up.

    Where did this obsession come from? Why do the programming execs feel we have to be watching every time one of these sluggers comes to the plate on the off-chance that they’ll hit one out. Who cares? All home runs look virtually the same. Junior almost always hits one down the right-field line and McGwire almost always blasts one into the third deck in left. Face it. No matter how far or hard you hit it, unless it’s the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, it just gets a little old. And besides, we’ll see it on ESPN at least 147 times that night anyway.

    And yet the media continues it’s fascination with the home run, and those of us residing in areas without a major-league team — who have nothing but the highlight shows to show us what happened in the ballparks tonight — will continue to see nothing but the long ball.

    We won’t get to see the strategy at work and the small plays that decided which team ended the night in the win column — only the big flies, which may or may not have played a real role in the game.

    I don’t mean to bag on what is a viably exciting play. I like home runs. I’m one of the first on my feet when somebody hits one out, but staring at them so intensely that the rest of the game fades into the background is cheating fans out of the real beauties of the game.

    It’s ordering teriyaki grilled salmon and just chewing on the parsley.

    It’s picking up a copy of “Crime and Punishment” and only reading the translator’s introduction.

    Come on Stuart, Rich. Show me the hit and run that moved the runner to third and the sac fly that got him home. Show me the southpaw who threw in a backdoor slider to make some righty fall over trying to hold up.

    Show me the baseball.

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