In Pittsburgh, manager Jim Leyland shakes his head as the Pirates' 5'8", 150-pound reserve outfielder, John Cangelosi, crushes a 400-foot opposite-field home run in batting practice. "They're flying out all over the place," says Leyland. In Detroit, outfielder Pat Sheridan drives a batting-practice pitch into Tiger Stadium's upper deck and says, "That ball was made by Titleist."
Home runs are being hit in both leagues with unprecedented frequency, and some unlikely players have suddenly turned slugger (see chart). Last year American League hitters hit a record 2,290 home runs. This year they are on a pace that would yield 2,595 round-trippers, or 2.28 per game. In the National League, in which the pitchers swing bats, hitters are depositing homers at a rate of 2.01 per game. At that rate the senior circuit will approach 2,000 home runs, shattering the league mark of 1,683 set in 1970. Players and managers everywhere agree with the Mets' Keith Hernandez, who says, "I definitely think the ball is juiced."
"Not so," protests Scott Smith, a spokesman for the Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., which has manufactured all the baseballs used by both leagues since 1977. "Our balls have not changed. They meet major league specifications just as they have in the past. Some of our engineers are taking this personally."
If the balls aren't causing the home run explosion, the decline in pitching could be. The National League's combined ERA is a lofty 4.22, while the American League's is 4.27, which, if the trend continues, would be the league's highest mark since 1950. Then again, young home run hitters like Eric Davis, Pete Incaviglia, Mark McGwire and Rob Deer came through the ranks using modern weight-training techniques and are swinging light, thin-handled bats, the better to whip balls out of parks. Says Reggie Jackson, "When I came up, it was almost illegal to lift weights. These guys are just bigger and stronger."
Still, a lot of baseball people believe a rabbit is in every ball these days. "Let's put it this way," says Brewers pitching coach Chuck Hartenstein. "Etch [coach Andy Etchebarren] doesn't have to worry about baseballs this year. He just puts them in the bag and they multiply."
Six who like the Rabbitball
Through May 24
Best Full Season
Luis Aguayo, Phillies
Wade Boggs, Red Sox
Jim Dwyer, Orioles
Howard Johnson, Mets
Bob Melvin, Giants
Ozzie Virgil, Braves
Total home runs per year