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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."