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Original Issue

Slam Bam! Nothing better symbolizes this season's offensive explosion than the fusillade of grand slams, which--to the dismay of hapless hurlers--are being fired off at a record pace

Creighton Gubanich and Mike Piazza are major league catchers,
and they attended the same high school, Phoenixville, in
suburban Philadelphia. However, that's where the similarities
end, given that the New York Mets' Piazza is a six-time All-Star
and one of the most prolific hitters ever at his position and
Gubanich is a pudgy 27-year-old Boston Red Sox rookie with 16
major league at bats through Sunday. Yet on May 3 in Oakland,
Gubanich became one of only four players to make his first big
league hit a grand slam home run. "Someday people will be
looking through the record book and see some guy named Creighton
Gubanich and wonder, Who was that?" Gubanich says. "Hey, if a
guy who once played for five organizations in two years and
still lives with his parents can hit a grand slam in his fourth
at bat, then you know there must be a lot of them flying out."

He's correct. In this combustible 1999 baseball season, batters
are going yard with the bases juiced almost as fast as you can
say Creighton Gubanich. On April 23 St. Louis Cardinals third
baseman Fernando Tatis, who hadn't hit a grand slam in his first
2,424 pro at bats, became the first major leaguer to smash a
pair of slams in one inning. Seventeen days later Red Sox
shortstop Nomar Garciaparra had two slams in one game. Thus
Tatis and Garciaparra joined nine other players on the list of
those who had hit a pair of slams in the same game (chart, page
50), a feat rarer than a perfect game, of which there have been
14 in major league history. Sandwiched between those
accomplishments was the performance of Seattle Mariners
centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who on April 29 and 30 became
only the 18th player to belt slams on back-to-back days. Then,
on May 20, Robin Ventura of the Mets became the first player to
have a grand slam in each game of a doubleheader. Heck, Bruce
Aven, a 5'9", 180-pound reserve outfielder for the Florida
Marlins, had two grand slams among his seven homers in 123 at
bats through Sunday.

Going into this season, the record of four grand slams allowed
in a season had been shared by pitchers Tug McGraw, Ray Narleski
and Mike Schooler, who, after tying the mark while with Seattle
in 1992, said, "I've reached the epitome of grand slamness."
Soon there may be a new epitome: Through Sunday, Los Angeles
Dodgers righthander Chan Ho Park had already allowed four
bases-full homers (including both to Tatis) in 12 starts.

After Houston Astros outfielder Derek Bell connected for a grand
slam off San Diego Padres lefthander Heath Murray on Sunday, 60
slams had been belted in the major leagues already in 1999, a
pace that would shatter by 18 the season record of 141 set in
'96. Of course, this glut of grand slams is merely the most
dramatic symptom of the offensive epidemic sweeping the big
leagues. Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz refers
to the '99-style baseball as a "slo-pitch softball-style game."
Through Sunday teams had scored 10 or more runs 191 times this
year, and runs had crossed the plate at an average of 10.3 per
game, approaching the record (11.1) set in '30. Compared to the
'98 season, homers had increased by 15.0%, hits by 3.0%, runs by
7.6% and walks by 6.5%.

In 1881 first baseman Roger Connor of the Troy (N.Y.) Trojans,
then of the National League, cleared the bases with a home run
for the first time in big league history. (The term grand slam
wouldn't be accepted as part of the game's lexicon until
somewhere between Bobby Jones's golf Grand Slam in 1930 and the
Denny's Grand Slam breakfast in the '70s.) Even while four-run
homers have become increasingly common from one decade to the
next (chart, previous page), the final decade of the 20th
century has been a real slam-banger. Five of the top seven
seasons for grand slams by a team have been in the '90s, with
the Braves setting the major league mark with 12 in '97. On the
receiving end, a shell-shocked Detroit Tigers pitching staff
doled out a record 14 in '96. At week's end the scary Cleveland
Indians had already hit six bases-full blasts in '99, while
Seattle had cracked four, prompting Mariners broadcaster Dave
Niehaus's call "Get out the mustard and rye bread, Grandma, it's
grand salami time."

Why the explosion? "The biggest reason is that pitchers are
walking more people," says manager Jim Fregosi, whose Toronto
Blue Jays had yielded three grand slams through Sunday. "And
because of expansion, there are many pitchers in the big leagues
who don't have the command that's necessary to pitch at this
level. They get behind and have to throw a fastball because
that's the only pitch they can get over the plate, and those
tend to leave the ballpark."

As Fregosi suggests, the vast majority of the 1999 grand slams
have been hit against mediocre or inexperienced pitchers. For
instance, Ventura notched the first slam of his doubleheader
double against Milwaukee Brewers lefthander Jim Abbott, who had
an 8.49 ERA at the time, and his second against lefthander
Horacio Estrada, who was facing the ninth batter of his big
league career. Garciaparra cracked his pair against righthanders
Brett Hinchcliffe and Eric Weaver, who had previously logged a
combined 29 1/3 major league innings. Only eight of the season's
60 grand slams had been hit against pitchers with more than 60
major league wins.

That provides a stark contrast to Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who
during his career with the Baltimore Orioles didn't allow a
grand slam in nearly 4,000 innings (chart, page 52). "I just
thought that you couldn't give in with the bases loaded," Palmer
says. "Some people might say it's a freak thing, but I was very,
very conscious of it. Maybe I was good at math. Giving up one
run is a lot better than four." To that end, Palmer would prefer
to walk in a run than surrender to a batter who might hit a fat
fastball out.

Apparently Park is gradually learning that lesson. "Sometimes
you need to give up one run instead of two runs or more," he
said last week. Park has seen how he and other pitchers get in
trouble when facing a batter with the bases loaded. "You first
try to make too perfect a pitch and miss, and then you have to
throw what the hitter is looking for. When Tatis hit the second
one, I didn't think about any record. I kept going,
'Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable.'"

At week's end Park was 4-3 with a 4.84 ERA, and Dodgers manager
Davey Johnson was worried that the grand slams could sabotage
Park's season because of the enduring damage four salamis can do
to a pitcher's confidence. That view was also expressed by
Anaheim Angels lefthander Chuck Finley, who had surrendered two
grand slams in his 14-year career. "When you give up a grand
slam, there's a little more ignominy involved, a little more
psychological effect on you," Finley says. "It's like the
difference between a 12-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown and
a kickoff return 75 yards for a touchdown."

The hangover is apparently so devastating that baseball's active
leader in grand slams allowed, Marlins righthander Alex
Fernandez, wallowed in denial last week when confronted with his
past. "How many did you say I've given up? Eight? That's not
even close," he said. "I remember I gave up one to Brian McRae
in 1997, another to Gregg Jefferies and one other I can't
remember. That's it." (Just to refresh your recollection, Alex:
Do the names John Jaha, John Olerud, Dean Palmer, Kevin Romine,
Kevin Seitzer and Terry Steinbach mean anything to you?)

Pitchers are clearly at their most vulnerable with the bases
loaded, especially with less than two outs, because the
predicament limits a pitcher's options. "A pitcher's first
thought with the bases loaded is not to give up a home run, and
his second thought is, Don't walk the hitter," Cardinals
pitching coach Dave Duncan says. "Both of those thoughts are
distracting and negative. [Not to mention somewhat
contradictory.] You've got to learn how to block the situation
out of your mind and stick to your plan to get the hitter out."

Says San Francisco Giants lefthander Shawn Estes, who has never
surrendered a grand slam, "You're a little more careful with the
bases loaded, but the last thing on your mind should be giving
up a slam. You should be more aggressive because the hitter
wants a homer in that situation and pitchers tend to be timid."

Naturally, every batter dreams about batting with the sacks
packed, but hitters differ on the proper plan of attack. "When
the bases are loaded, I don't change my batting stance and try to
lift the ball for a home run," says Orioles designated hitter
Harold Baines, who on May 4 hit his 13th grand slam, most among
active players (chart, left). "You have to get the right pitch
just like with any home run."

Anaheim first baseman-DH Mo Vaughn, an eight-slam man,
disagrees: "I focus a little more when I go up there with the
bags full. I get more pumped up. If I get a pitch I can drive,
I'm thinking about hitting it out. Hitting a slam jacks
everybody up. It's the biggest play in baseball."

Ventura, who through Sunday was hitting .339 with 12 homers and
133 RBIs in 118 career at bats with the bases loaded, insists he
has never tried to clout a grand slam. "I've already hit my
share, so I go up there thinking, There's no way this can happen
again," he says. "Just when I've talked myself out of it, then
boom!" Conversely, Ventura says, "anytime I'm swinging good and
I start thinking I might hit a slam, that's when I ground into a
double play. A grand slam is an accident."

Before Tatis's heroics, Atlanta pitcher Tony Cloninger had been
the only National Leaguer ever to get two grand slams in one
game, in 1966 against the Giants. (Cloninger had 11 career
homers.) The only player ever to whack a granny in his first big
league at bat was also a pitcher, Bill Duggleby, who did it for
the Philadelphia Phillies in 1898. The Texas Rangers' Larry
Parrish batted .186 with one homer and six RBIs for the first
three months of the '82 season and then hit a record three grand
slams in one week. Before '87 the New York Yankees' Don
Mattingly had averaged just .255 with one extra-base hit in 52
career at bats with the bases loaded, but that season he set a
major league record with six grand slams.

History suggests that most slams are nothing more than
improbable footnotes. On July 4, 1939, Jim Tabor of the Red Sox
became just the second player to hit two slams in one game--the
same day that Lou Gehrig, the alltime leader in grand slams,
with 23, delivered his renowned farewell speech at Yankee
Stadium, marking Tabor as the second luckiest man on the face of
the earth that day. Of the most famous homers, from the Called
Shot to Bobby Thomson's to Bucky Dent's to Joe Carter's, not one
has been a grand slam, at least partly because the postseason
features better pitching. While Ken Boyer's grand slam off the
Yankees' Al Downing in Game 4 of the '64 World Series helped
turn the tide toward the Cardinals, and Tino Martinez's slam off
Mark Langston set the tone for the Yankees' sweep of the Padres
in last fall's Series, baseball people are likely to bring up
more eccentric slam anecdotes, such as Rod Kanehl's hitting the
first grand slam in Mets history and in the bargain winning
50,000 trading stamps.

With increasingly bloated slam numbers and the homer having
become synonymous with a luncheon meat, is a grand slam still
grand? "I think the slam has lost some of its luster," says
Parrish, now the Tigers' manager. "During my career, every grand
slam was a big deal, but today it's being duplicated so many
times that it's almost become just another homer."

Barry Larkin, a 14-year veteran with the Cincinnati Reds, begs
to differ. Through Sunday he was slamless in 103 career at bats
with the bases loaded. He also was the active leader for most
career at bats without a grand slam, at 5,924. "It seems like
everyone's hitting them this year," Larkin says. "Man, I'm
getting a complex. I've never hit one in my life--not even in
Little League."

Larkin can take solace in the fact that 16 Hall of Fame hitters
never had a grand slam, and perhaps he can even derive some
inspiration from the knowledge that 18 players have hit their
first career slams this season. "In baseball it's always the
year of something, and 1999 will definitely go down as the Year
of the Grand Slam," Ventura says. "Who knows? Somebody's
probably hitting one right now."

COLOR PHOTO: MATT BROWN Double slammy The historic two-slam days of Tatis and Ventura were among the loudest salvos of the grand barrage of '99.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above]




Century Mark

Grand slams have been hit with higher frequency in the 1990s
than in any other decade. This season has been the most
slam-happy ever: There had been 60 bases-loaded homers in 915
games through Sunday, a rate of one every 15.2 games.


1900-1909 149.2
1910-1919 101.5
1920-1929 49.9
1930-1939 37.8
1940-1949 33.0
1950-1959 24.4
1960-1969 29.3
1970-1979 28.6
1980-1989 27.7
1990-1999 20.5

Source: Elias Sports Bureau


Fernando Tatis of the Cardinals became the first player in major
league history to hit two grand slams in one inning when, on
April 23, he connected twice in the third against the Dodgers.
He was just the 10th player to hit two slams in a game, and 17
days later Nomar Garciaparra (right) of the Red Sox became the
11th, making 1999 the first season in which two players hit two
slams in one game. Here are the players who have pulled off the
double salami.


Tony Lazzeri, Yankees 2B May 24, 1936
Jim Tabor, Red Sox 3B July 4, 1939
Rudy York, Red Sox 1B July 27, 1946
Jim Gentile, Orioles 1B May 9, 1961
Tony Cloninger, Braves P July 3, 1966
Jim Northrup, Tigers OF June 24, 1968
Frank Robinson, Orioles OF June 26, 1970
Robin Ventura, White Sox 3B Sept. 4, 1995
Chris Hoiles, Orioles C Aug. 14, 1998
Fernando Tatis, Cardinals 3B April 23, 1999
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox SS May 10, 1999

Grand Opportunity

Through sunday 1,774 hitters had come to bat this season with
the bases loaded. Here's a breakdown of what happened during
those plate appearances.

Singles 278
Doubles 86
Triples 12
Grand Slams 60
RBIs 1,295
Walks 120
Strikeouts 298
Sacrifices 130
Slugging Pct. .483

Source: Stats Inc.

Grandest of All

When Orioles designated hitter Harold Baines hit a grand slam
against the White Sox on May 4, he not only tied three other
players for 10th place on the alltime list, headed by Lou Gehrig
(below), but also took the career lead among active major
leaguers. Here are the leaders in both categories.



Lou Gehrig, 1923-39 493 23
Eddie Murray, 1977-97 504 19
Willie McCovey, 1959-80 521 18
Jimmie Foxx, 1925-45 534 17
Ted Williams, 1939-60 521 17
Hank Aaron, 1954-76 755 16
Dave Kingman, 1971-86 442 16
Babe Ruth, 1914-35 714 16
Gil Hodges, 1943-63 370 14



Harold Baines, Orioles 359 13
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners 373 12
Mark McGwire, Cardinals 476 12
Robin Ventura, Mets 181 12
Albert Belle, Orioles 331 11
Eric Davis, Cardinals 272 10
Gary Gaetti, Cubs 357 10

Those Who Served (Up)

Some of the best fireballers in history, including strikeout
king Nolan Ryan and alltime saves leader Lee Smith, have been
victimized most by the grand slam. Then again, one of their
fastballing peers, Jim Palmer (above), threw the most innings in
the post-Dead Ball era without giving up a slam. Here are the
leaders at both ends of the pitching spectrum.



Nolan Ryan, 1966-93 5,386 321 10
Lee Smith, 1980-97 1,290 89 9
Ned Garver, 1948-61 2,477 213 9
Frank Viola, 1982-96 2,836 294 9
Milt Pappas, 1957-73 3,186 298 9
Jerry Reuss, 1969-90 3,669 245 9
Jim Kaat, 1959-83 4,528 395 9



Eddie Plank, 1901-1917 4,505 41 0
Vic Willis, 1898-1910 3,996 66 0
Jim Palmer, 1965-1984 3,948 303 0
George Mullin, 1902-15 3,687 42 0
Herb Pennock, 1912-34 3,558 128 0

Source: Elias Sports Bureau