Bucky Gleason: No matter baseball's age, home runs never grow old - The Buffalo News
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Bucky Gleason: No matter baseball's age, home runs never grow old

As you know, Babe Ruth isn't the biggest hero in American sports history because he was a terrific pitcher. People still marvel over him hitting 60 home runs for the 1927 Yankees, one of the great teams ever assembled, but more astonishing was the number he hit compared to players of his time.

In 1920, two years after he was traded to the Yanks, Ruth hit 54 homers while George Sisler finished second with 19. In 1926, Ruth finished with 47 homers while runner-up Al Simmons had 19. In 1935, when Ruth retired with 714 homers, Lou Gehrig was second all-time with only 378.

Fans for generations have been more fascinated by the home run than any other individual play in sports. Homers have grown in numbers without ever growing old, defining baseball's folklore and entertaining its fans. No combination of elegance and violence quite matches a purely struck baseball.

Baseball's history was built on home runs.

Ruth promised to hit one for a sick child. Ted Williams hit one in his final at-bat. Bobby Thomson's allowed the Giants to win the pennant in 1951. Bill Mazeroski won the '60 World Series with one. Kirk Gibson famously limped around the bases after hitting one in the '88 Series. Joe Carter won a title for the Blue Jays in '93.

Others have been hit out of sight – onto Waveland Avenue in Chicago, into the San Francisco Bay, over Lansdowne Street in Boston. Mickey Mantle broke a window across the street from old Yankee Stadium. Ruth hit one into an intersection beyond the centerfield wall in the old Tiger Stadium.

No other play in sports is celebrated longer than the home run because no other sport requires more action to complete the play. Hockey players raise their hands after scoring goals. Football players dance after touchdowns. Home run hitters savor the accomplishment while circling the bases for more than 20 seconds.

In no other sport are fans on the receiving end of a scoring play, either, adding to the allure of the home run. Home run balls travel from the pitcher's hand to the hitter's bat to fans in the stands to the tops of dressers and trophy cases. That's true unless they're hit against the Cubs, in which case they're tossed back on the field.

The ball Barry Bonds hit for his record-breaking 756th career homer rests in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown – with an asterisk.

Baseball's biggest stain was caused by steroid use beginning in the 1990s, but there's little disputing the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 recaptured disgruntled fans who vowed never to return after labor strife cut shot the 1994 season. Three years later, Bonds hit a record 73* homers.

Regardless, fans remain mesmerized by the home run, which is why they will be talking about Aaron Judge's rookie season and his performance in the Home Run Derby on Monday night far longer than they'll remember the result of the All-Star Game on Tuesday night.

Judge hit one ball 513 feet, nearly 100 feet farther than his average home-run distance (416 feet), which is equally astounding. Earlier this year, he punched a hole in a concession stand television set. He hammered another into a restaurant. It's a matter of time before he hits one to Connecticut.

Even stodgy Yankees haters – stay strong, my brothers and sisters! – can't get enough of the 25-year-old Judge.

Baseball hasn't had a rookie energize the masses the way Judge has in years, maybe decades. He hit 13 homers in his first 25 games and continued pounding while emerging as a superstar in less than a half-season. And to think the Yankees weren't sure during spring training camp whether he would be an everyday player.

Judge surpassed Joe DiMaggio's record for most homers by a Yankees' rookie when he hit No. 30 before the all-star break. He's well within reach of McGwire's big-league rookie record of 49 homers in a season. He could become the first player to win Rookie of the Year and the Triple Crown.

More than anything, though, Judge has invited casual fans back into the game. At 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, he's Exhibit A of players who have become bigger and stronger with every generation. He's where the game is headed over the next 20 years. Ruth was 6-2 and 215 pounds of hotdogs and beer.

Judge is hardly mashing by himself. According to the New York Times, Major League Baseball was on pace to shatter the previous home run mark set in 2000, the year before it began testing for performance-enhancing drugs, by some 425 home runs going into Sunday's games.

Forty-three players were on pace to hit more than 30 homers this season. Last year, only 31 players hit 31 homers or more. Mark Trumbo led the big leagues last season with 47 dingers. Judge will hit 57 if he keeps up his current rate while Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger is headed for 45.

Blame the steroid era for making people suspect something sinister is happening behind the scenes. But it seems unlikely, given the crackdown on PEDs, for a league-wide secret to be held this long. There was talk about steroid use for years before suspicions were confirmed.

Numerous factors could be contributing to the dramatic increase in homers, such as baseballs wound tighter or a shrinking strike zone. Pitchers on average throw harder than they did years ago, boosting exit velocity off bats. More players than ever are immersed in the science of hitting.

For generations, players were taught to swing on a level plane with the idea they would hit more line drives and hard ground balls than fly balls. Players now have a greater understanding of the swing angle needed to change the trajectory of balls, contributing to more homers than ever.

Strikeouts have increased every year for the past decade, but it doesn't seem to bother hitter or their instructors. Rather than shorten their swing with two strikes, batters have kept an aggressive approach regardless of the count. It has led to more homers and more money for players hitting them. In simple terms, guys are hacking.

And they're making history.

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