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THE HOT CORNER: Realizing the need for speed

by Jim Allen (Feb 25, 2010)

With the changes raw power has brought to the game, team speed is often overlooked as an element of success. It didn't happen in an instant, but the home run's game-changing power, over the years, lured some fans and some teams into thinking that home runs were THE answer.

When Boston Red Sox owner Hary Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, it changed the way people looked at the game. In 1919, triples were still more than twice as frequent as home runs, so people took note when Ruth hit 29 home runs as a pitcher-outfielder for the Red Sox.

In the context of that era, 29 was a noticeable figure. Ten of the 16 major league teams failed to match Ruth's total that year. Many thought it a fluke, but Fenway Park was then a terrible home run park and nearly all of Ruth's homers came on the road.

Ruth's move to New York's Polo Grounds and his new record of 54 home runs coincided with two other events in 1920 that changed the game forever.

That August, Cleveland's star shortstop, Ray Chapman, was killed by a discolored ball he likely never saw, and in September, a grand jury convened to investigate the fixing of the 1919 World Series.

In response to Chapman's death, dirty baseballs were removed from play from 1921. Clean balls proved easier to hit hard and made home runs easier to come by.

Although many veterans and purists scorned the home run, fans embraced it. After the fallout from the Black Sox scandal, teams found the longball to be a marketable commodity and soon made changes to encourage home runs.

The Babe Ruth revolution opened the door for slow players with big swings, but it was a revolution Japan had no interest in joining. Why the longball took so long to receive its due in Japan is one of the major mysteries of the game here.

Japan didn't see anything like it until 1949. Changes to the strike zone that year and expansion in 1950 from eight teams to 15 saw a home run and scoring explosion, but it was quickly snuffed out. How and why teams abandoned the home run as an offensive weapon is yet another mystery.

The free-swinging Nishitetsu Lions under manager Osamu Mihara revived the longball to their advantage to build a mini-dynasty in the mid 1950s. Yet, 20 years ago one of the old Lions stars from those teams admitted he was ashamed of the brand of ball they had played.

Power hitting here did not get much respect until the 1960s, when Katsuya Nomura of the Pacific League's Nankai Hawks began setting records that were then broken by Sadaharu Oh of the Central League's Yomiuri Giants.

Offenses quickly became more diverse, about both speed and power. By the time the Yomiuri Giants' run of nine straight Japan Series titles ended in 1973, however, the desire for the quick home run fix began to squeeze speed out of the game. Within a few years, the nation that didn't want homers couldn't get enough.

In 1980, the story in the Pacific League was juiced baseballs, an issue that resurfaced a few years ago. The Chunichi Dragons blew the whistle on the rabbit ball in 2004, when manager Hiromitsu Ochiai said his speedy, under-powered attack would be better off without them. In the wake of that announcement, teams scrambled to use "less-lively balls."

Easy home runs discourage diversity, by encouraging teams to give more playing time to slow hitters who can drive the ball.

The recent success of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters is a good sign. The Fighters have had the fastest team in Japan in three of the past five seasons and won the PL in each of those years. But because few teams look to Sapporo for leadership, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara's success could be the best thing that's happened to the game here in years.

Following the introduction of free agency in 1993, Yomiuri's pursuit of aging, big-name hitters had put Giants on a slow road to nowhere.

Hara, however, has reversed that process, turning a club that was too slow to catch a cold into a younger, more diverse group that can beat you with defense and base running as well as with its big bats.

One can only hope his success sparks imitation and brings more speed and thrills into the game.


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