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A Farewell to Skinny Arms

You want finesse, join a bridge club. The Boys of Summer are now beefy, pumped-up maulers ready to tear down the fences. This is the most homer-happy era in history, and there's never been a better time to be a hitter—or a worse time to be a pitcher. Welcome to Extreme Baseball, where too much is never enough

by Tom Verducci
  BBRECORD52.JPG At 6'5", 270 pounds, Frank Thomas of the White Sox was once an anomaly, but now he's a role model, a figure of envy in what has become a big man's game.    (V.J. Lovero)

Every day this spring a battalion of protein drinks spiked with the muscle-enhancing supplement creatine awaited the New York Yankees after they ended their workouts in Tampa. The white Styrofoam cups with red straws poking through the lids were lined up on a table in the clubhouse like soldiers awaiting inspection. One afternoon, as his players snatched up all the cups, the most powerful of Yankees sucked on his shake while admonishing a clubhouse attendant. "Next time make sure you have a few more made up," said owner George Steinbrenner, dressed in his own uniform of blue blazer and white turtleneck. "Better to have too much than not enough."

So there you have it. The perfect metaphor (albeit a mixed one) for what has happened to baseball near the end of this millennium: The owner of the game's richest team is downing souped-up shakes that promise to make him even bigger. Steinbrenner knows that baseball has become a big man's game—as surely as it belongs to men named Piazza (240 pounds), McGwire (250 pounds), Bichette (260 pounds) and Thomas (270 pounds), it belongs to men named Jacobs ($62 million payroll), Turner ($65 million), Angelos ($67 million) and, yes, Steinbrenner (more than $70 million). Like never before, baseball is about being buff. Anybody hoping to get to the World Series had better come to play with plenty of muscle and plenty of money. Better to have too much than not enough.

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza gained 20 pounds over the winter lifting weights at a gym in Venice Beach, Calif. Baltimore Orioles DH Harold Baines added creatine to his diet as well as a supplement containing fish oil to lubricate his creaking 39-year-old knees. Tampa Bay Devil Rays third baseman Wade Boggs, who turns 40 in June, took creatine while bulking up with heavy weights for the first time in his career. (Yep, Wade Boggs, the slap hitter who's done more for singles than any man except Chuck Woolery.)

This is an awful time for a team to be short on pitching. We are in the greatest home run era in history—the last four years are among the top five seasons for home runs per game. (The other, second on the list, was the freakish '87 season.) This year holds the promise of breaking more records than were shattered on Bill Veeck's Disco Demolition Night, because it's also an expansion year, and the arrival of the Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks has forced into service 22 pitchers who should be either retired or in the minors.

The impact is predictable. In each of the past five expansion years, there were nearly uniform increases in home runs, batting average, walks and ERA, with dingers going up the most on average. The results will be even more dramatic this season, not only because this is the second expansion within six years but also because hitters have never been stronger or more power-conscious. Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, who slugged 44 home runs last year, spent November chugging creatine and lifting weights. He added 12 pounds in a month and now looks more like a blacksmith than a baseball player.

The season's defining moment will take place in Denver on July 6, when the home run hitting contest will be held in conjunction with the All-Star Game at Coors Field, the most homer-happy park in baseball. Unless the rules are changed—say, the ball must land in the upper deck to be counted as a home run—that baseball show might drag on longer than Titanic.

Coors Field is the perfect backdrop for such excess, because a select group of high-revenue-producing stadiums like it have stratified baseball like never before. What division you're in doesn't matter much anymore, not with wild cards creating open competition for playoff spots and three rounds of postseason play guaranteeing the occasional Cinderella team a date with a big, ugly large-revenue club. All that matters is a team's willingness to spend money, which, as you'll find in the scouting reports that follow, is what really separates the contenders from the rest of the pack. Talk about radical realignment: Forget, as we did, about East, Central and West, and check out the payrolls instead.

  BBRECORD56.JPG Gunning for the biggest contract in baseball history, Piazza hit the weights and put on 20 pounds.    (John Iacono)
The five biggest spenders last year all made the postseason, leaving just three playoff spots for the remaining 23 teams. The three clubs who got those spots each spent at least $33 million—and each was gone from the postseason quicker than footprints in the sand at high tide. The exemplar of this trend is Wayne Huizenga, the owner of the Florida Marlins, who bought himself a world championship last year and then decided that he'd paid too high a price.

"It may not seem that long ago that Oakland, Minnesota and Kansas City were World Series teams," says Athletics president Sandy Alderson. "But that's ancient history. The dynamics of the game are drastically different from what they were 10 years ago—even five years ago. The change is easily explained: It was the construction of stadiums with public money coupled with the drop in TV money after the last CBS contract." Almost overnight, the poor got poorer, and the rich got a lot richer.

As the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, those clubs in between are the most foolhardy. They are the ones spending enough money to dream of a pennant but not enough to compete with the big-revenue clubs. They might as well drop the money on lottery tickets. "If you're not spending $50 million, then you probably ought to cut way back," says Montreal Expos general manager Jim Beattie. "That middle ground is quicksand. I'm not sure why anyone would want to be there."

Over the past decade Major League Baseball has tried to prop up its low-revenue franchises with innovations such as the luxury tax, interleague play and the wild-card spots, but these changes haven't been nearly enough to compensate for the unprecedented revenue of the elite clubs. A radical realignment along geographical lines will almost certainly be the next bold effort to bolster the small-market teams. One American League general manager says the next logical move will be to split the season into halves. "The small-revenue clubs stand a better chance of hanging in" for 81 games than for 162, he explains.


Tom Verducci's Picks

In that scheme, statistics, of which even baseball owners know the historical importance, would still be tabulated over the entire season. They are the Morse code of baseball. To say only "61'' or ".400'' is to be nearly poetic—and to anticipate what this season holds in store. Expansion is the El Niño of baseball. It causes extreme conditions.

The 61 came in '61, an expansion year. Not only did Roger Maris hit a major league record number of home runs that season, but Norm Cash of the Detroit Tigers also had one of the most anomalous batting averages in history, .361—78 points higher than any other season in which he batted 400 times. In '62, another expansion year, Tommy Davis of the Dodgers drove in 153 runs, 64 more than in his next-best season.

Maris's mark is more likely than ever to fall this season. Before 1990 only 10 players had hit 50 home runs in a season; five players reached that plateau in the past eight years. "I think 61 is the one record that is almost certainly going to go," says San Diego Padres 16-year-veteran Tony Gwynn, who has won the last four National League batting titles and eight in his 16-year career. "I used to think no one would ever come close, but the way guys are today it seems like it's going to go. Last year you had 12 guys hit 40 or more home runs. It's not just one or two guys who could do it. There are five to eight guys capable of hitting 61.

  BBRECORD57.JPG It was a productive off-season for Dante Bichette, who added 40 pounds—most of it between his wrists and elbows.    (V.J. Lovero)
"Expansion definitely helps. By the time you get to the third or fourth game of a series, you'll be facing a pitcher who doesn't have a lot of experience and doesn't have real good command, and you know you're going to get pitches to hit."

Among the many players with a shot at surpassing 61, three stand out as most likely to succeed: in order, the Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr., who hit 56 last season and only now, at 28, is hitting his power prime; the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire, who slugged 58 last year despite having one horrible month; and the Texas Rangers' Juan Gonzalez, who has four 40-home-run seasons even though he has played in as many as 150 games only once.

"I like Junior's chances as much as anybody's," says his manager, Lou Piniella. "I've watched him get much stronger the last couple of years. He's not a line drive hitter anymore, even though he likes to say he is. He's a home run hitter, and if only he could be a little more selective.... Well, I won't even finish that thought.''

Expansion during a power hitter's era makes it possible for baseball fans to imagine—perhaps to even expect—feats that were once considered unthinkable. Among them:

.400 batting average In expansion years Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins (1977) and Andres Galarraga of the Rockies ('93) made lengthy runs at .400, which hasn't been reached since Ted Williams did it in '41. Says Gwynn, who hit .372 last year, "I still think it's possible. What helps me is I think pitchers now see so many guys who can hit the ball out that with a guy like me they figure, 'If I make a mistake, it's only a single. I can live with that.' I'm a throwback. There aren't too many guys left like me."

67 doubles This is the 67th year since Earl Webb of the Boston Red Sox had 67 two-baggers. The Montreal Expos' Mark Grudzielanek and Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez of the Mariners are only a magic carpet ride away. "It can be broken," says Rodriguez, who bashed 54 doubles in '96, "but it's going to take a guy who plays home games on artificial turf."

189 strikeouts The love affair with power has a downside. Seattle's Jay Buhner, the Cincinnati Reds' Melvin Nieves and the Chicago Cubs' Henry Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa figure to be within whiffing distance of the San Francisco Giants' Bobby Bonds's 1970 mark.

5.04 league ERA The worst earned run average for a season was the American League's in 1936. That could easily be outdone, considering that league's pitchers ballooned to 4.99 two years ago. The Devil Rays are sure to play a huge role in any run at this record.

"As a pitcher, what can you do?" asks Yankees righthander David Cone. "You can make your legs stronger, create better balance and make yourself less likely to break down. But lifting weights is not going to translate into having better stuff, not the way getting stronger can make someone a better hitter."

In 1994 the career of shortstop Kevin Elster was in decline when Yankees general manager Gene Michael told him, "You're too soft. You can't play with that body. You've got to get a new body." Shortstops—like Michael himself—regularly hung 15-year careers on thin frames. Not anymore. Elster began a weight-training program. In '96 he cranked 24 homers and drove in 99 runs for the Rangers.

The effect of size on baseball is profound—what was big is now small. The cleanup-hitting outfielder is now a middle infielder. The Atlanta Braves' Tony Graffanino (6'1", 195 pounds) is the same height and is 12 pounds heavier than the weight at which Frank Robinson played. The Kansas City Royals' Jose Offerman (six feet, 190) is just a bit bigger than Stan Musial was in 1948, the year he led the National League in batting (.376) and RBIs (131). Dale Sveum (6'2", 212) of the Yankees is almost as big as Johnny (Big Cat) Mize, and McGwire (6'5", 250) is as big as NFL defensive star Bryce Paup.

At 35, Mickey Mantle was virtually finished. At 35, Duke Snider was a part-time player, and Ralph Kiner was in his third year of retirement. At 35, Paul O'Neill of the Yankees is coming off a career year (.324, 21 homers, 117 RBIs) and is more fit than ever, his 6'4", 215-pound frame chiseled by weights and creatine.

In the clubhouse of the Mariners, who last year hit more home runs than any club in history (264), fat canisters of creatine are piled above lockers like cords of wood. Creatine monohydrate is a naturally occurring compound consisting of three amino acids. In nontechnical terms, it's fuel for muscles. A study by Penn State's Center for Sports Medicine found that members of a control group taking creatine grew stronger after just seven days.

"Three or four years ago, the nutritional supplement market for baseball players didn't even exist," says Dave Rose, a manager with Champion Nutrition of Concord, Calif., which supplies several major league teams with a variety of nutritional additives. "Now it's gone crazy. The market for baseball is bigger than for football or basketball."

"Let's face it, guys get paid for home runs," Piazza says. "If you hit 30 home runs, nobody cares if you hit .250 doing it. That extra strength may be the difference of five to 10 feet—the difference between a ball being caught or going over the wall. Why wouldn't you lift and take supplements? You've got one time in your life to get it right. I want to get it right."

Piazza is the prototypical player of this new power generation. He was born 10 days before Denny McLain won his 30th game in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. Only three major league players drove in 100 runs that season; in '97, Piazza was one of 35 players with at least 100 RBIs. No catcher has ever caught as many games (139) and batted higher than Piazza did last year, when he hit .362 (along with 40 home runs). Then he spent the off-season lifting weights with bronzed bodybuilders while his personal shopper-chef-nutritionist whipped up six meals a day for him: omelettes, pancakes, tuna, chicken, steak and, daily, a creatine shake. He reported to camp at 240 pounds, expecting the rigors of catching to wear him down to 225 by the end of the season. He says, "I want to go out and top last season."

Piazza is also a potential free agent seeking the richest contract in baseball history. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are expected to be sold by their longtime family proprietors, the O'Malleys, to a new owner, global media baron Rupert Murdoch. Just another sign of the times. So gather up your fish oil and your amino acids, and fire up your blender. The stakes have never been higher for hitting it big.

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