The second deck of the leftfield stands at camden Yards in Baltimore is almost 450 feet from home plate and about 60 feet above field level—unreachable, it seemed, to those of us in the media who were sitting there for the All-Star home run hitting contest on July 12. Then Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers crushed a ball that rocketed over our heads and hit the facing of the third deck. The Orioles later calculated that the ball would have traveled 553 feet if the stands hadn't gotten in the way.
It was the first ball ever hit off the third deck in the 1½-year history of the Orioles' ballpark. A few minutes later Gonzalez became the first player to hit a ball off the wall beyond the centerfield fence, a shot of some 455 feet.
After those two blasts, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners became the first batter to hit the landmark warehouse that looms over rightfield, across the street from the stadium. The Orioles say the building is 432 feet from home plate, and Griffey's shot struck a brick eight feet above the street. No less of an expert on tape-measure homers than Reggie Jackson, who witnessed Griffey's missile, said it traveled a minimum of 500 feet.
This awesome display of power drove the sellout crowd wild and left a number of All-Stars and other onlookers shaking their heads in amazement. "Unbelievable," said Oriole manager Johnny Oates. "How would you like to have those two in your lineup the next 15 years?"
Gonzalez and Griffey head up a new and different breed of home run hitter. It's a precocious group of sluggers whose members also include Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians, Dean Palmer of the Rangers and Gary Sheffield of the Florida Marlins. They are challenging the game's established strongmen, and it appears certain they will be clearing fences when the likes of Cecil Fielder, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire and Kevin Mitchell arc no longer swatting 30 to 40 homers a season.
"There are lots of 'em, and they're going to be around a long time," Mitchell, of the Cincinnati Reds, says of the new breed. "I love watching them bash." A student of hitting, Mitchell also loves to talk about them. He calls Gonzalez "the best of the new guys. He's a bad-ball hitter, the real sign of a real power hitter. He doesn't have a zone, so where do you pitch him?"
But the young slugger Mitchell admires most is Griffey, with whom he played in Seattle last year. "I've seen the man on the bench, in a tic game, say to me, 'Do you want me to hit a home run?' Then he does it," Mitchell says. "We'd stand in the outfield in spring training, and he'd say, 'This game is too easy for me, Mitch.' I told him, 'I used to say that when I was young. Just wait until you get old.' "
No, homers aren't for old players. Not anymore. In the last five years, of the 10 major league players who have hit 35 or more homers in a season, only two were older than 29—Ryne Sandberg was 31 when he hit 40 in 1990, and Howard Johnson was 30 when he hit 38 a year later. Homers are for young guys.
Gonzalez and Griffey are only 23 years old; Sheffield and Palmer are just 24. Last year they all hit 25 or more homers to mark the seventh time in history that four players have hit that many in a season before their 24th birthday (box, page 21). All have at least 21 homers already this year except for Sheffield, who had hit 13 through Sunday and swatted one in the first inning of the All-Star Game, on July 13. Then there's the 26-year-old Belle, who had more homers (23) at the All-Star break than any Cleveland player since Rocky Colavito in 1959.
Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, 25, had 20 homers at midseason but doesn't even consider himself a home run hitter. He's so strong he can hit 30 homers by accident. Other players—like Atlanta's David Justice, 27, whose gorgeous uppercut swing had produced 21 homers through Sunday, and the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds, 29, and Matt Williams, 27, who through Sunday had hit 26 and 22 home runs, respectively—are in their power-hitting prime but just beyond the new breed's age bracket.
This year injuries have threatened the careers of former home run champs Jose Canseco (elbow) of Texas and Darryl Strawberry (back) of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and have kept McGwire (heel) of the Oakland A's out of action since mid-May. But the young sluggers, as evidenced by the crowd's thunderous greeting at the All-Star Game, have stepped up and captured America's interest as only home run hitters can.
Why do people like power hitters? "Why do people like to watch John Daly?" asks Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. Like the long-driving PGA golfer, baseball's new bashers are young, charismatic, and hit balls where none have gone before.
The prototypical home run hitter is a big, thick, strong guy who swings hard, strikes out a lot, hits home runs to all fields, mashes taters off pitches that aren't strikes and always seems to hit towering fly balls that take forever to come down.
But this new breed of power hitter comes in various styles. Some hit the ball to all fields, others just pull it. Some swing so hard it's scary, others swing so gracefully it's scarier. Some strike out a lot, others hardly ever do. Generally, they're not monsters who muscle balls out of the park. "Most of them are good hitters first, power hitters second," says Canseco. "They can hit 20 to 25 homers that way. But the true power hitter can hit 40 and think about 50. I don't think you can be classified as a true power hitter until you've hit 40. Of the new guys, only Gonzalez has done that. But I like watching them because they hit 'em far."
Fielder calls Gonzalez the "strongest man in baseball," high praise from someone who surely is the second-strongest man in the game. Some of the National League stars in Baltimore last week had never seen Gonzalez up close before. "I didn't know he was that big," said San Diego Padre outfielder Tony Gwynn. At 6'3", 210 pounds, Gonzalez might be the most impressive physical specimen in baseball.
Through Sunday he was tied with Mickey Tettleton of the Tigers for the American League lead in homers, with 25, and was bidding to become the second American League player since Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins in 1962-64 to lead the league in dingers by himself in consecutive years (Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox did it in 1977-78). Last year Gonzalez became the fifth-youngest player ever to hit 40 in a season, topping the majors with 43.
"He has a long swing, kind of a slow bat, but he gets his hands to the ball," says Mitchell. "And he hits his homers to left, center and rightfield, which all home run hitters do."
And often it doesn't matter if the pitch is in the strike zone. On May 21, in the eighth inning of a game against the California Angels, reliever Joe Grahe threw Gonzalez a fastball that was six inches off the outside edge of the plate. Gonzalez drilled it over the rightfield fence to tie the score. In the 10th inning Angel reliever Chuck Crim almost bounced a breaking ball. But Gonzalez golfed it over the leftfield fence for a dramatic 6-4 victory.
Gonzalez, however, now looks to be more than just a slugger. A career .259 hitter entering this season, he was batting .331 for the Rangers at week's end, making him an American League MVP candidate. "Who do we compare Juan Gonzalez to?" says Ranger assistant general manager Sandy Johnson. "Juan Gonzalez."
Another MVP candidate is Griffey, who had hit 22 homers through Sunday and, with a .311 average, was gunning for his fourth straight .300 season. And yet he is younger than the leading 1993 Rookie of the Year candidate in either league—the Dodgers' Mike Piazza and the Angels' Tim Salmon. Griffey has 109 career homers and is the sixth-youngest player to reach 100, just behind Hank Aaron and just ahead of Frank Robinson. "Junior is the only guy I know who doesn't swing hard and can still hit homers," says Mitchell. "It's amazing. To me, he's like a young Strawberry."
Unlike Strawberry, who has a long, arching swing, Griffey has a short, quick, beautiful stroke. He is a far better pure hitter than Strawberry, and each year he has gotten stronger. In successive seasons beginning in 1989 he has hit 16, 22, 22 and 27 home runs. This might be the year he hits 40. Three of his bombs this season reached the upper deck in right center at the Kingdome, blasts of at least 450 feet.
Anderson is another of Griffey's big boosters. "He's not a home run hitter, but he is just because he's so good," says Sparky. "What he is, is the best talent in America. He and Bonds are the two best players in baseball."
Even Griffey says, "I don't consider myself a home run hitter. But when I'm seeing the ball and hitting it hard, it will go out of the park."
His strength comes naturally. "I have a set of weights at home," Griffey says, "but my wife uses them."
One American League manager says the player he fears more than any other in the league is Belle. "We walk him," says the manager. "Not intentionally, but why give him something to hit? We just won't let Albert beat us." With 24 homers through Sunday, Belle is virtually assured of joining Larry Doby as the only Indians to hit 28 or more homers in three straight seasons. It's no wonder that Fielder calls him the most promising power hitter to come along in years.
Belle stands close to the plate and has an upright stance and a ferocious swing, yet he's very difficult to fool because he's a good breaking-ball hitter. A fan of crossword puzzles and chess, and a student who is close to earning a degree in accounting, he keeps a daily log of what pitchers throw him and what he hits. His homework is paying off this season. A career .260 hitter before 1993, he was batting .293 at week's end.
"The biggest difference is he's driving in the man from second with two out, and he's leaving fewer runners at third base with less than two outs," says Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove. "But for power, he's so strong, no park can hold him."
Unfortunately many fans still remember Belle for his battles with alcohol at the start of his career, for throwing a baseball at a fan in the stands two years ago and for being sent to the minors in '91 because of a lack of hustle. But Belle says he hasn't had a drink in three years, and he seems to be considerably calmer than in recent seasons. He has matured as a person and a player, and has projected a better public image after signing a three-year, $8.5 million contract in the spring.
Sure, he still loses his temper on occasion—as he did in May when he charged Kansas City Royal pitcher Hipolito Pichardo after being hit by a pitch. And he'll slam his bat to the ground in disgust when he draws a walk. "But he's gotten so much better, and the credit goes totally to himself," says Hargrove, who was Belle's first manager in Class A ball in 1987. "It takes two days to get a reputation, 10 years to get rid of it. But he's not the guy anymore who threw the ball at the fan in the stands. Now he's more open, he's more trusting of people. He's less afraid to be hurt or let down. He's a good man."
And fast becoming a great hitter.
In 163 at bats in his rookie league season of 1986, Palmer didn't hit a home run. "It was scary," he says. "It was tough. After my first two years, I didn't know if I'd ever get to the big leagues. But one year it started to come together. When I signed, I was a 175-pound weakling. But my body filled out [to 205 today]. I'm still not the type who can muscle it out, like McGwire. I rely on my bat speed."
"We're talking about as good a bat speed as there is," says Johnson, the Rangers' assistant G.M. "He's so young, this is the first year Dean has realized that he can hit the ball to the other [right] side. I think we'll see some tremendous shots to right center and straightaway center."
Palmer differs from the other members of the new breed—through Sunday he had a lifetime average of only .220, and he had struck out 351 times in 332 games. But he also had hit 21 homers this season, putting him on pace to reach 40. The last American League third baseman to hit more than 35 homers in a season was Graig Nettles of the Yankees in 1977.
Since signing with the Rangers in '86, Palmer has been compared with former Philadelphia Phillie third baseman Mike Schmidt. Palmer and Schmidt are the only rookies ever to hit 15 homers and bat less than .200 in a season. The Rangers knew he would strike out a lot, but Johnson says, "He got the ball in the air as a kid, and that's the key to being a power hitter. We worked him out before the draft, and he was hitting balls over the trees."
Palmer hit the second-longest home run of the year, a 477-foot shot that cut through the wind and landed in the upper deck in Tiger Stadium on April 20. (Fielder had a 484-foot blast there on July 2.) But Palmer says, "When I try to hit home runs, my swing goes to pot. I'm surprised when I hit one with the big boys."
He's so young he doesn't know he is one of the big boys.
With only 67 career homers, some may doubt whether Sheffield belongs in this home run class, but he was among the National League leaders all of last season, finishing third in the league with 33—the most by a batting champion since Boston's Fred Lynn hit 39 in 1979. He's not a typical power hitter. Sheffield hits line drives that just keep going. Last season he pulled 32 of his 33 homers to leftfield. All but one of his 13 this year have gone that way, and his two-run homer in the All-Star Game went to left.
Sheffield is another player whose homers are the direct result of excellent bat speed, which he generates by building up his wrists and forearms. By keeping both wrists equally strong, he doesn't hook the ball, and thus his line drives tend to stay fair. He strengthens his hands, wrists and forearms with the use of a gripping mechanism that has a weight attachment, a device dubbed the Canseco Hand Basher.
"I do so many reps I don't even feel my arms," Sheffield says. "When your hands are strong, all you've got to do is get your hands to the ball. Once you generate bat speed, everything else takes care of itself."
With the strength in his hands and wrists, Sheffield "probably swings as hard as anyone in the game," says Gwynn, a former Padre teammate. But Sheffield says he isn't overswinging and expects to hit more homers as he gains experience because he will understand what pitchers are doing to get him out. "One day," he says, "I believe I'll hit 40 homers."
Considering his competition among the new breed, he won't be alone.
Tape-measure shots by Griffey (left) and Gonzalez are worth watching.
DAVID LIAM KYLE
As Belle's emotional temperature has cooled, Cleveland fans have warmed to his talents.
Once a 175-pound weakling, Palmer relies on bat speed—not muscle—to generate homers.
RONALD C. MODRA
Sheffield found the leftfield seats in the first inning of the All-Star Game.