A few days ago, local hometown baseball team the Minnesota Twins hit their 200th home run of the season. July 25, and they have 200 home runs. There’s 60 games and change left in their season. Right now they are only 67 home runs shy of the MLB record set by the Yankees just last year. All they need to do is average about a dinger a game, and right now they are averaging almost two dingers per game, which means it’s highly likely that they will break the record.
Well, them, or someone else. Because every team is hitting a lot of home runs this season. And I mean a lot. The 1998 season — the height of the steroid era — saw just a hair over 5,000 total home runs. Teams hit a total of over 500 more than that last year. And 1,000 more the year before that. This year they have hit over 4,300 already, more than they did in all of 2014, just four short years ago. And as the season is only — more or less — a third of the way over, that means MLB players are on pace to break the 2017 record, and then some.
It seems, in baseball, we have hit the peak saber-metric dystopian nightmare old timers tried to warn us about, where every at bat is either a strikeout, a walk or a home run. Last season was the first time in MLB history where strikeouts outnumbered hits. (Bill Buckner just rolled over in his grave.) And it was only 15 or so years ago when these same Minnesota Twins — them of the 200 home runs before August — were nicknamed the “piranhas” and hailed for their “small ball,” bouncing infield base hits off of the metrodome concrete, moving runners over, executing the hit and run, and making smart base running decisions. And that strategy led them to division title after division title. Now? They are a completely different team. I have never seen a Minnesota Twins team quite like this before. No one has. Will it be enough to do something those early 2000s teams could not do? Mainly, win in the playoffs? Time will tell.
TL;DR: lots of home runs. Lots and lots of home runs. And the old timers aren’t happy about it. Claiming all the home runs and all the strikeouts and all the walks are ruining the game, slowing it down, making it boring. Gone is the bunt and the hit and run and the sacrifice fly. Now it’s all just dingers or nothing. Some say that’s boring. It’s hard to disagree but I kind of do. I grew up in the 80s when guys still stole bases and the suicide squeeze — easily the most exciting play in baseball — still existed. When shortstops never played on the wrong side of second base, and pitchers wore jackets when they got on base. (That last one doesn’t make a lot of sense in context here but still, I miss that.)
And you hear, of course, the same arguments about cricket. Too many sixes are choking the game, removing its nuance, taking away its creativity. All the players look the same. All the games look the same. It’s muscle bound hulks hitting balls into the terraces over and over again and then getting clean bowled. Yawn. And every time a new T20 franchise league pops up, and every time a once venerable Test side looks poor with the bat, and every time a once promising young cricketer quits Test cricket, the old timers pop their heads up and call it the end of cricket forever, that the Test is dying, that there’ll never be a great Test batsman again, all because of the T20.
The argument against the old timers is that baseball and cricket and all sports evolve and that’s okay. For some reason, though, baseball and cricket are the only two sports where that evolution is heralded as the end times. Right now, in baseball, it’s the era of the home run and not of the base hit, but it’s still better than the dead ball era, or the steroid era, or the Astroturf era, or the dome era. And whose to say we won’t return to the 70s when the base hit ruled the roost? And when we do we can guarantee that 30 something baseball fans who will become the future old timers will clutch their pearls and wonder where the real baseball went, the one with all the dingers.
And in cricket right now we are in the heart of the T20 franchise era, of sixes and cheerleaders and cricketers who lift weights. But it won’t last forever. Eras never do. That’s the definition of the era. Soon the game will evolve again — cricket, despite its pastoral and traditional reputation, changes more quickly and more often than any other sport on earth — and it might change for the better or it might not, but it will change.
Unless, of course, it doesn’t.
And that’s the real fear here. That cricket and baseball have gone too far down their respective rivers to turn back. The ECB has turned its back on both the ODI and the Test. There is a new franchise T20 league every day, leaching players away from their county side and even more worryingly their national side. Players are becoming six hitting mercenaries who travel the world looking for the next five week T20 league to whack sixes in. First class cricket is dying, and instead of leaning back into the past and trying to fix it, the ECB, to keep picking on them, is leaning in the other direction, making the game even shorter, and making it even more conducive for the six hitting hulks to thrive.
Baseball? Same deal. Will there be a defensive style that finally once and for all is an effective weapon against the home run, strike out, walk offense? I don’t see it. You can only move the infield around so much. You can only throw the ball so fast or so slow or with so much movement. The only way out are rule changes. Deaden the ball. Raise the mound. Move the fences back. And these are the same changes that cricket would need to make. But can you imagine either the MLB or any national board doing anything even close to that? Anything that would actually stem the tide of home runs and sixes? I certainly can’t. The ICC for their part rewards boundaries and uses it as a tie breaker. I think that alone speaks for itself.
Because that’s the thing, people like home runs. People like sixes. Myself included. A moon shot into the night is something to behold. And a well timed six when a team desperately needs it in their run chase is even better. But there can be too much of a good thing. Both slow the game down, both take the nuance out of their respective sport, and both take away some of their game’s greatest moments: the running between wickets, the suicide squeeze. And neither is going away any time soon. And that, I must admit, worries me.
I’m sure I am wrong though. I know how this all sounds. Another aging sports fan shouting into the void against change and evolution. But the thing is it’s out of love. I love these games, especially cricket. And I hate seeing what’s happening to them right in front of us and we are all both powerless to stop it and equally culpable, as we are all still buying tickets and tuning in. Will sixes and home runs be the things that kill their sport? Probably not. Both will probably be okay. Steroids and labor disputes couldn’t kill baseball. The T20 didn’t kill cricket (at least not yet). But I worry.
All that said, there have been worse eras, for both sports. And so it could be worse. And the games evolved out of those, and no one knows what the future will bring. Neither sport will probably hit its zenith again. Those days are probably gone. But the eras of the six and the home run will, someday, hopefully, end. And people will start running between the wickets again, and people will start stealing bases again. Until then, though, the best we can do is enjoy this, think about how it could be worse, and look forward to the day when the worm turns again and a new era is ushered in.
Sports change, people change. All is only temporary. The 2019 World Cup was light years better than the 2007 World Cup, and the former’s final was the greatest final of all time. Things change. They get better. Sometimes they get worse. All we can do is enjoy the times we are in. And right now that means home runs and sixes.
There are worse things.