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The Big Bang

It seems as if every hitter is waving a big stick this season, and batting statistics are going through the roof

After the San Diego padres scored five runs in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 23, Padre rightfielder Tony Gwynn challenged his teammates the next day "to get five more in the first tonight." No sweat. "And five runs became," Gwynn says, relishing the memory. Joe Coleman, the Cardinals' veteran pitching coach, had never seen anything like it. "What a mess," he says.

Imagine, a 13-run first inning—there hadn't been a bigger inning in the majors since 1989—by a team with a 48-78 record and a lineup that looked to be right out of Triple A. Surprised? You shouldn't be, not in this year of outrageous offense, this year of The Big Hurt for pitchers. In fact, it wouldn't have been much of a shock if St. Louis had come back to beat San Diego in that game (the Cards lost 17-4).

It has been the summer of 17-4 games, 450-foot home runs and a lot of dingers by little guys with no business hitting the ball out of the park. This year the Philadelphia Phillies could become the first team in either league to score 900 runs since 1953 as well as the first National League team ever to go an entire season without being shut out. What's more, with a month left, one player still had a shot to hit .400, a pitcher had an even better shot at .400, four players were threatening the 50-home-run barrier, and every Ron, Rick and Barry was on pace to hit 30 homers or drive in 100 runs or both.

"Out there on the mound this year," says Texas Ranger reliever Tom Henke, "it's scary."

As a rule, ERAs expand in expansion seasons, but more so than the infamous expansion seasons of 1961 and '77, '93 will be remembered as a great season for hitters. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, at week's end, home runs per game were up 25.4% and runs per game were up 12% compared with last season. Only six other times in this century have both homers and runs per game increased by 10% or more from one season to the next. Says Padre hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, "Every time I look at the scoreboard, someone's reaching 100 RBIs faster than anyone in some club's history."

Heading into the final month, 27 players were on pace to drive in 100 runs. Only in 1930—the greatest offensive season in major league history—were there more 100-RBI men (32). The Rangers, the Detroit Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays were good bets to have three players with 100 RBIs each. The last season in which three teams from one league did that was '50 (American League). The last year one team had three players drive in 100 runs was '84, when the Boston Red Sox did it.

Twenty-two players were on pace to hit at least 30 home runs (the record is 28, in 1987, the year of the rabbit ball). Eight of those players had a good shot to hit at least 40—which would tie the record set in '61—despite the fact that sluggers Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Darryl Strawberry missed most of the season because of injuries. In the meantime, Juan Gonzalez of Texas, with 41 home runs, and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Frank (The Big Hurt) Thomas of the Chicago White Sox (page 40), with 40 each, will be gunning for 50. There has never been a season in which three players reached that magic number, and the only seasons in which two players did it were '38, '47 and '61.

But it's not just power hitters who were feasting at the plate. Through Sunday the major leagues' combined batting average was .266, up from .256 in 1992. According to Elias, in only five other seasons has the average jumped 10 points from one year to the next. If the 13 players who were hitting at least .320 maintain their averages, they will constitute the biggest group of .320-or-better batters since 17 hit that high in '39. Even pitchers were getting into the act. The Los Angeles Dodgers' Orel Hershiser was hitting .391, the Colorado Rockies' Armando Reynoso had belted two homers, and the Cincinnati Reds' John Smiley had a 4-for-4 game.

"It's like the 1940s again," says New York Met assistant general manager Ed Lynch. But instead of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, the premier hitters were Bonds and the Blue Jays' John Olerud. With a month to play, Bonds was leading the National League in home runs and RBIs (102), and he was second in hitting (.341). No active player has hit .325 with 35 homers and 120 RBIs in a season—the New York Yankees' Don Mattingly is the only active player who has reached those numbers in his best seasons combined—yet Bonds, Gonzalez, Griffey and Thomas all might scale those heights. As for the .300-30-100 plateau, eight players had shots. That would be the most in history and one more than in the last five years combined.

Until last week Olerud had a chance to hit the .400-30-100 trifecta. A lifetime .269 hitter entering this season, Olerud was hitting .391 as late as Aug. 27. But he went 7 for 33 in the next 10 games, and his average dropped to .379 on Sunday. In explaining his breakthrough, which had him bidding to become the first .400 batter since Williams hit .406 in 1941, Olerud says he's more aggressive at the plate (he was hitting .561 when he put the ball in play on the first pitch), handles the inside pitch better and knows the pitchers better. "Outside of that," says Olerud, "the only thing that's different is that I'm married." What makes Olerud's season even more remarkable is his power—he had a .635 slugging percentage and was on pace for 85 extra-base hits.

Anyone familiar with Olerud's sweet swing would have expected him to break out and have a huge year, but how does anyone explain why Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder Orlando Merced, a career .260 hitter, was batting .321? Or why Yankee catcher Mike Stanley, with 24 homers altogether in seven previous seasons, had 25 this year? Or why Chicago Cub outfielder Sammy Sosa, with 37 homers in 1,293 at bats entering this season, had 31? Or why Giant second baseman Robby Thompson, .258 lifetime, was hitting .334? "In past years I've been more of a hacker than anything else," says Thompson. "I feel like I'm maturing into a hitter now. I don't feel this is a fluke year. I'm going to hit."

"Not taking anything away from anyone," says Gwynn, who was batting .358 and swinging for his fifth National League batting title with four weeks to go, "but some things are happening that don't normally happen."

And why is that?

Here are four theories, one for every 1993 home run of Cleveland Indian infielder Alvaro Espinoza, who had hit only seven homers in 1,523 career at bats before this season.

•The ball is juiced. "Definitely," says Henke. "Little guys are hitting homers. You're not supposed to be afraid of the eighth and ninth hitters taking you deep. I gave up a homer to [Baltimore Oriole number 8 hitter] Harold Reynolds on a changeup when he had to supply all the power. This reminds me of '87. I've seen balls that never want to stop. We took batting practice in Baltimore and made it look like a Little League park."

Henke's assertion has a lot of support around the majors. "The ball is livelier—or else the ozone layer is messed up again," says Coleman, whose staff is on pace for its first 4.00-plus ERA since 1970. "I've compared balls from last year and this year, and this year's are noticeably harder. Our pitchers never got blisters last year, but this year a bunch of them have. The seams last year were soft; this year they're hard. With the seams' being higher on the ball, it creates more air-time—it keeps spinning and carrying."

Baloney, says Scott Smith, marketing services manager for Rawlings, which manufactures balls for the major leagues. "The baseball has not changed in any way," Smith says. "There has been no change in material or in the manufacturing process. It is the most consistent baseball ever made."

Smith insists there was nothing different about the baseball in 1987, either, when he received between 25 and 30 calls a week from media members and fans demanding to know why the ball was livelier. This year it has been "a lot quieter," he says. "It's somewhat funny. But people accuse the ball when there's an increase in offense and they neglect other elements, such as the human factor, wind, ballparks. There are so many variables."

Lynch doubts that the lords of the game have tampered with the ball, but he says, "Ten years ago, when a guy hit a home run to the opposite field, we talked about it for six months. Now guys do it all the time." Naturally, most hitters, including Gwynn and Thompson, say it's not the ball at all. "Hey," says Houston Astro hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, "give the hitters some credit."

•The pitching stinks. Expansion has something to do with the combined major league ERA'S climbing from 3.74 last year to 4.32 through last Saturday. "Pitching is diluted, no doubt," says Phillie catcher Darren Daulton. "Take a pitcher from every team [in the expansion draft], and that's going to happen." Pirate third base coach Rich Donnelly says, "There are guys up here who should be in the [Double A] Southern League. They should be going to the Instructional League, but instead they're going to the big leagues. Expansion is great for jobs, but for getting people out, it's terrible."

Clearly the expansion Rockies' pitching staff has had a hand in the hitting orgy in the National League. Entering the final month of play, the Rocky Horror Pitching Show had an ERA of 5.62. But as Rettenmund points out, pitching is weak throughout the majors. "I've never seen so many 3-0, 3-1, 2-0 counts in my life," he says. "When a pitcher gets behind, he throws a fastball right down the middle—there aren't too many hitters who can't hit that. One of our guys, Archi Cianfrocco, said he got a 2-0 fastball one night that was so fat, he said he would be dreaming about it the rest of the year. Then he got the exact same pitch on the next pitch."

•The thin air at Mile High Stadium. All you need to know is, the Rockies have the highest home batting average in the National League and the lowest road batting average. Outfielder Jerald Clark, for example, was hitting .324 at home, .239 on the road. "That park's a joke," says Astro second baseman Craig Biggio. "I've got two homers there that should have been doubles." The ball takes off in the thin air.

"Best hitting park I've ever seen," says Rettenmund. "If Gwynn played there, he'd definitely hit .400. It's not just for homers. That's the fastest infield I've ever seen. To me, you have to be a fly-ball pitcher to be successful there. How stupid is that to say you want to keep the ball in the air in Denver?"

One day Sid Bream of the Atlanta Braves, a lefthanded hitter, checked his swing and hit a homer—335 feet to left-field. Because Mile High is so big in center (423 feet) and right (370), outfielders must play deep. Therefore a number of catchable fly balls drop in for hits, and routine ground-ball singles to center sometimes end up as doubles. If a ball gets over a centerfielder's or rightfielder's head, it's at least a triple. "Teams should play a 3-4 defense there," says Donnelly. "Put another guy in the outfield. Who needs a second baseman in that park?"

Colorado manager Don Baylor is tired of defending the place. "It's our park—what can you do?" he says. "You can't change the altitude."

Freak atmospheric conditions have been a boon to hitters elsewhere, as well. The wind has been blowing out at Chicago's Wrigley Field more this season than in recent years, which helps explain why Sosa has hit 23 of his 31 homers at home. Biggio says teammate Jeff Bagwell hit a homer at Wrigley this year "on a pop fly to the shortstop." Then, too, it's been an unusually hot summer, and meteorologists attest that the ball travels farther in hot weather. "One day in Philadelphia, it was 166° on the field," says Phillie reliever Mitch Williams. "I stopped for gas on the way home and puked in the parking lot. I've never done that."

•The Class of '68. That was the year of the pitcher, but it also was the year in which Bagwell, Olerud, Sosa, Thomas, Roberto Alomar of the Blue Jays, Carlos Baerga of the Cleveland Indians and Gary Sheffield of the Rockies' expansion brethren, the Florida Marlins, were born. Add three more players who were born a year later—Gonzalez, Griffey and Travis Fryman of the Tigers—and you have 10 of the best players in baseball. All are terrific athletes who, at 25 or younger, already have a few years in the big leagues and are entering their primes.

Problem is, none of them are pitchers. Of the promising arms in the Class of '68, Rod Beck (40 saves) of the Giants, Pat Hentgen (16-8) of the Blue Jays and Darryl Kile (14-6) of the Astros are just this season making their marks in the majors, while Ramon Martinez (9-9, who has had an elbow injury) of the Dodgers and Mike Mussina (14-5, shoulder and back soreness) of the Orioles already have run into problems.

It has been a season of firsts for many hitters, a season when no lead is safe, when the cleanup hitter always seems to be up. The Padres' number 4 man, Phil Plantier, hit seven home runs and drove in 30 runs for the Red Sox in 349 at bats last year. In a six-game span this season, from Aug. 23 to 29, he blasted five homers (a grand slam and four three-run shots) and had 18 runs batted in, running his season totals to 29 homers and 80 RBIs in 358 at bats. Included among those totals was, a monstrous three-run shot that capped San Diego's marvelous 13-run first inning. "For this team, that was a year of frustration coming out in one inning," says Plantier. "I got tired of getting up to shake everyone's hand. It was incredible."

It was the 1993 baseball season.



Gwynn, with five or more hits in a game four times this year, has seen a lot of fat pitches.



Sosa (left) suddenly found a home run groove, something that Bonds is familiar with.



[See caption above.]