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Giancarlo Stanton fights it every time he steps up to the plate. He's been fighting it ever since he reached the majors two years ago. He was 20 years old then, his legend not yet Harper-esque but a legend nonetheless, the great tales of baseballs being bludgeoned out of ballparks and into parking lots, golf courses and lakes already following him everywhere.
Every time he steps up to the plate, he feels the clash between the mind and the body. "The mind is calm. It knows I shouldn't be up there trying to hit home runs," he says. "But the temptation is always there. The body just wants to crush the ball."
The Miami Marlins outfielder was a 20-year-old with Double A Jacksonville when he hit a home run that sailed over the 60-foot-tall scoreboard in Montgomery, Ala., a shot that was "at least 500 feet, and probably a lot more," says his then manager, Tim Leiper. He once hit a 425-foot homer in Lake County, Fla., and after returning to the dugout he realized the bat that he used was a broken one that he'd meant to throw out. There was the strange and unbelievable, but entirely true, time at Chase Field in Phoenix when his low line drive whistled past the dives of the Diamondbacks' third baseman (to his left) and leftfielder (to his right) all the way to the outfield wall. "It defied physics," says then Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez. "It didn't make sense."
Before games opposing players and coaches linger on the field just to watch Stanton take batting practice. One day in Philadelphia, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel asked Rodriguez if he could stand behind home plate to watch the prodigy hit. As Stanton launched bomb after bomb, Manuel just shook his head in silence, and afterward he said to Rodriguez, "I've never seen anything like this."
In May, Stanton was in the middle of a historic stretch of hitting—he would hit .343 with 12 home runs and 30 RBIs and become the youngest player since Joe DiMaggio to reach those totals in any month—when he stepped up to the plate against the Rockies with the bases loaded and the Marlins trailing by two runs. When the count ran full, the Marlins Park crowd rose to its feet. Everyone expected Stanton to do something amazing, but the thing about the greatest young slugger today is that even when the amazing is anticipated, he often trumps those expectations. He hit a grand slam, of course, but he also hit the ball with such force—according to hittrackeronline.com, the off-bat speed of the ball was 122.4 mph, the fastest-ever reading—that when it slammed into the auxiliary scoreboard in leftfield 462 feet away, it took out a panel of lights.
Someone later asked Stanton what won the battle that night, the body or the mind. "Sometimes they both win," he said.
Don't you miss these stories? Don't you miss the days of storybook sluggers roaming the earth?
Baseball, as you probably know, has turned into a pitcher's game. The winds started changing a few years ago, with a wave of talented young pitchers reaching the majors, with teams becoming smarter about developing arms and, yes, with the rise of drug testing. Last season players hit 4,552 homers, 1,141 fewer than the peak in 2000. This year, through week's end, players were on pace for 4,817 homers, a 15.4% drop since '00. All the offensive numbers, not just home runs, have fallen as well.
But baseball's best stories, whether real or fictitious, have always been about the long ball—Babe Ruth's called shot, Kirk Gibson limping around the bases, Roy Hobbs bashing a baseball into the lights at the end of The Natural. Don't you miss the mythic slugger?
Then Giancarlo Cruz Michael Stanton is the player for you. Growing up in Sunland, Calif., he was Mikey, a quiet kid who wore number 25, after one of his favorite players, Mark McGwire. In the minor leagues and during his dazzling first two seasons in the majors (he mashed 56 home runs; only Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez had as many before age 22 in the last 45 years), he was Mike. This spring, without explanation, he told reporters that he wanted to go by Giancarlo. His teammates still call him by his nickname: Bigfoot. "He does things no human should be able to do," says veteran Marlins reliever Randy Choate. "The only guy that I've ever heard players talk about like they talk about [Stanton] is Darryl Strawberry."