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In the first two weeks of the season, 28 players struck out three times in a game, and three others whiffed four times apiece. Such alarming numbers have little to do with the lockout, cold weather or the quality of the pitching; they're simply in line with the disturbing direction the game has taken in the last decade. Strikeouts have been on the rise for years, and no one seems overly concerned about it.
True, watching Nolan Ryan fan Bo Jackson ranks as one of the most exciting moments in baseball. But what about all of Bo's other K's? When a player—even someone as charismatic as Jackson—fans 172 times a year, as he did in 1989, it gets boring fast. Last season, American League batters struck out 21.6% more than they did in '79, while their National League counterparts fanned 14.5% more often. The number of players with 100 or more K's climbed from 19 in '79 to 42 in '89.
Hitters today sometimes strike out as many times in a week as Joe DiMaggio did in a year. When Jackson completed his third full season in the majors last year, he had 510 career strikeouts, 141 more than DiMaggio had in his 13 years with the Yankees. The Brewers' Rob Deer, born the day after Ted Williams's final at bat, passed the Splinter's career strikeout total of 709 in '89, Deer's fourth full season in the big leagues. Williams played 19 seasons.
"Strikeouts are accepted today," says Reds announcer and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. "When I played, we tried not to strike out 100 times [in a season]. If you did, they had a bottle of champagne waiting for you. Now they hand out those bottles in June or July."
Says Yankee broadcaster and former All-Star shortstop Tony Kubek, "It's an attitude. Some guys say, 'So what? A grounder or a strikeout, it's the same thing.' But maybe the fielder throws away that grounder. How many more games would the Royals win if Bo put the ball in play more often? You can make a highlight film about Bo, but you can also make a lowlight film."
Kubek thinks agents are partly to blame for the casual acceptance of strikeouts because they tell their clients to swing for the fences to get bigger contracts. "The game has changed," says 38-year-old Padres outfielder Fred Lynn. "The marquee player used to be the guy who hit .300. Now it's the guy who hits 25 to 30 homers."
Although 22 of the top 40 career strikeout leaders played in the 1980s, the trend toward more K's began in 1970, when Bobby Bonds struck out a record 189 times while having an otherwise terrific season for the Giants. Other power hitters soon picked up the beat, and by the early '80s, whiffing had become de rigeur for sluggers. Says Kubek, "Now there's a misconception that if you don't strike out, you don't hit for power. But how many times did DiMaggio strike out? Or Williams?"
DiMaggio hit 361 homers in his career but struck out only 369 times. He never whiffed 40 times in a season, and in 1941, the year of his 56-game hitting streak, he fanned only 13 times. Williams's single-season high was 64, but that was in his rookie year.
"There's not the emotional penalty there once was for striking out," says Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn. "I don't say to my guys, 'Don't strike out so much.' And the game doesn't say that either."