x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A strike against home runs

They are more about style and less about substance in the context of a baseball game, yet spectators love them.

Ryan Roberts, the Arizona Diamondbacks batter, hits a home run against the New York Mets. The Diamondbacks still lost the game. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images
Ryan Roberts, the Arizona Diamondbacks batter, hits a home run against the New York Mets. The Diamondbacks still lost the game. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

The home run grouch is reporting for duty. Hi.

Another home-run moment has come and wrought a stir. It has splashed across web pages and jazzed up TV coverage. It has made enough noise that a generation of impressionable children might view these things called "home runs" as greatly significant.

It has received lavish-enough attention that it might occlude one of the strangest facts in all the sports in all the world: the baseball thing that gets the most attention (home runs) has only limited relevance to the game it occupies (baseball).

That must have been some Tuesday night in Baltimore, Maryland, where Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers hit four home runs in one game, becoming the first player since 2003 and only the 16th player ever to do so, dating back through 162-game and 154-game seasons all the way to the 1800s.

Only 11,263 people - or 23 per cent of stadium capacity - witnessed the trivial feat.

Raised as an American and conditioned on the limelight granted to home runs, Hamilton, 30, called it the second-best highlight of his six-year Major League Baseball career, behind playing in the World Series. His teammates made a big hubbub. The Rangers manager Ron Washington said, "History was witnessed tonight", raising the question of whether something qualifies as historic if it has happened 16 times. Rarity was witnessed, anyway, plus a sustenance of the home run hex.

The hex: to honour Barry Bonds for breaking the single-season home run record in 2001, the San Francisco Giants once held a ceremony immediately after a game in which they lost to ensure elimination from the play-offs. The hex: some esteemed authors committed books over the 1998 season and the home-run exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, even though McGwire's team did not make the play-offs and Sosa's team made them for about 15 minutes.

And, the hex: on TV each July during the All-Star break, a hyper-hyped atrocity called the "Home Run Derby" turns up, featuring only pitchers and hitters, with major leaguers competing to see who can hit the most baseballs over the walls. When future archaeologists evaluate the decline of the American empire, they surely will include this programme and its achievements in both shrill triviality and trivial shrillness.

Some days, you would never know that baseball is a game that tends to pivot on one laborious art (pitching) and one horde of nuances. Those things do not make great TV.

Some days, a grinch ought to turn up with a trove of statistics and spill them out on a page. So here:

From 2000 to 2011, the World Series champions led the majors in home runs only once (New York Yankees, 2009) and came second only once (Philadelphia, 2008). Other champions placed 10th, eighth, 21st, 19th, fifth, fifth, 12th, 18th, 10th and 13th in total home runs. In the 35 years between 1976 and 2011, only four teams have led their league in home runs and then gone on to win the World Series, only two from 1976 to 2008. In all that time, only 14 National League teams and nine American League teams reached the play-offs after leading their league in home runs.

A 31-year span went by between times when a player led his league in home runs and played for a World Series winner.

Bonds hit 762 home runs, the most ever, and across a 22-year career played in the World Series … once. He did not win.

The best team I ever watched regularly in person, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, won an American League-record 116 games while ranking first in batting average … but 18th in home runs.

A foremost obsession of fans has only tangential relevance to wins. It is one strange equation with maybe a hundred explanations. For one thing, home runs do look lovely.

But then, somebody weaned on a diet of baseball might note that no similar obsession attaches itself to the six in cricket. To commit academia here (long a province of grouches), the home run probably tells a few things about American culture, from its love of brawn to its distaste for nuance. It just does not tell us that Texas happened to win 10-3 on Tuesday. Sometimes in the fuss we have to go looking for that.


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