In Defense of the Home Run

Max Kepler helps to lead an MLB-best home run total by the Minnesota Twins. (via Keith Allison)

October 2, 1978. I had a small AM/FM radio my friends bought me for my birthday so I wouldn’t always be running home to watch games. I listened to most of the game in front of the school and held the radio up to my ear and did a play-by-play for everyone who was interested. As the game wore on the tension grew, everyone gathered around me on the lawn and I turned the volume up. And then the late bus came. I had to leave them all there, not knowing what was happening. For the four miles home, I had a bus full of commuters gathered around my seat, crossing their fingers, praying, waving lucky rabbit’s feet in the air.

The moment happened when I got off at my stop. It was a quarter-mile walk to my house, down one straight road. I had the radio up to my ear again as Bucky Dent came up to bat. My heart was beating fast, my nerves were tingling. I went into a half-run, hoping that I could make it to my house—which I could see all the way at the end of the block—before anything great happened. And there was no doubt in my mind, I felt it in every nerve in my body, that something grand was about to happen.

And then it did. Dent swung at a Mike Torrez fastball. It was going, going, gone. A three-run homer. The Yankees were up 3-2. I sprinted home, anxious to share the moment with my mother. Along the way, I heard joyous cries coming from around the neighborhood. The drama that moment afforded, the absolute exultation, could be provided only by a home run.

***

I have the same conversation with my father on at least a weekly basis: “The balls are juiced,” he complains. “There are too many home runs.”

While there’s an argument to be made as to whether the balls are juiced—MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has gone on record to say that the balls aren’t juiced, it’s just that Rawlings has gotten better at making them—there’s no doubt the number of home runs being hit this year is indeed staggering. Teams combined for a record 1,142 home runs in June. The Minnesota Twins just became the fastest team to reach 200 home runs in a season. Balls are flying out of parks, and not just at Coors Field.

The record for home runs in a season stands at 6,105 in 2017. It’s expected that record will be broken this year. And a whole lot of fans, like my dad, aren’t happy about that. But in my mind, there’s no such thing as too many home runs. I love the homer, the dinger, the bomber, the tater, whatever you want to call it. They say chicks dig the long ball, but so does most everyone else.

I can see where the “too many home runs” complaints are coming from. Mostly gone are pitchers going past the seventh inning, bunts, and all the other aspects of low-scoring, small-ball games. Those types of contests have their fans, and those fans are completely dismayed at what’s become of their favorite sport. On the other hand, there are people like me, who cheer every home run, who revel in the glory that is the long ball. There is something so beautiful, so aesthetically pleasing about a home run. The arc of the ball, the way it reaches for the sky before coming down—maybe in the bleachers, maybe over a wall—the way you wonder on some home runs if the ball will ever come down.

Just take a look at the Home Run Derby. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., all wild hair and moonshots, wowed fans by walloping an amazing 91 home runs in the contest. In the first round, he hit a record 29, most of them long blasts that delighted the crowd on hand. That the Home Run Derby is still wildly popular speaks to the home run being good for the game, despite the naysayers.

Homers have wide appeal. Casual fans might not tune in to watch a series of singles resulting in one run scored, but they will peek in when Mike Trout or Pete Alonso is batting, just to see if they hit one out. I know when I watch baseball, I’m sometimes doing something else while the game is on in the background. When I hear a cry of “it is far, it is high…” I immediately look up to watch the trajectory of the ball, to hear the crowd exalt, to see the player round the bases. I get such a thrill from the home run, and you can bet that the majority of fans do, too.

There’s grunt work in baseball; sacrifice flies, eking out a run from second on a single, squeeze bunts. That work is to be admired. You don’t win games without it. But it’s the home run that gets most of the glory, and rightfully so. One swing, one shot to the moon, can bring the fans to their feet in a way the sacrifice fly does not. It’s the stuff pure drama is made of. The moment where a player rounds the bases, fist-pumping in the air, grin on his face, high fives all around in the dugout, is exuberance defined.

So many of the most iconic moments in baseball involved home runs. Kirk Gibson in 1988 with one good leg. Kirby Puckett in the 1991 World Series. Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in Game Six in 1977, which made my house erupt with glee. And then, of course, there was Dent’s three-run homer in the Yankees’ 1978 tie-breaker game against the Boston Red Sox.

Don’t get me wrong; I love a pitcher’s duel as much as the next person. The rhythm of 1-2-3 innings, the joy of a worked-for strikeout—they’re an integral part of the experience of watching baseball. But the exuberance of a home run—especially one with runners on base—can’t be matched. There is something to be said about the crack of the bat, that particular sound of connection when you know a ball is going to be high, far, gone. Watching the batter watch the ball sail out, admiring his own work, listening to the call of the home run, the inherent excitement that comes with it; it’s all part of the value of baseball. It doesn’t even matter if your team is down by five runs. Even a solo home run in that moment can seem like a heroic effort.

Some complain that it’s ruining the game, or that the game feels “inauthentic” because of it, that we’ve reached the point of too many homers. And maybe because of the proliferation of home runs, they’ve lost their luster. But different fans like different aspects of baseball. There are people who love a low scoring game, who enjoy watching the back and forth between pitcher and catcher, people who are in it for the strategy of the sport. The home run is certainly not the only thing I love about baseball, but it is a big thing.

Beating the Odds: When Teams Outperform Their Projections
When it comes to outperforming projections, some teams are better than others.

I’m a hockey fan; from October through May (June if I’m lucky), I’m looking at mostly low-scoring games. The scoring pace in the NHL is considerably lower than in major league baseball. Goalie duels are common. 2-1, 3-2 games were the norm for my team last season. And while the action in hockey is a much faster pace, the scoring isn’t. There’s nothing comparable to the home run in hockey—a goal is a goal. You score a goal, you get a point. But baseball provides the opportunity to score more than one run at a time. Sure, a solo home run is fun to watch, but one with runners on base is even more exciting. A grand slam? I’m out of my seat. When April comes around and baseball starts, I’m hungry for a lot of scoring.

Home runs used to count for so much more. With advanced analytics becoming a bigger part of the sport, the importance of the home run has fallen off. Not for me, though. That full swing, that cracking sound, watching in awe as the ball sails over the outfield wall—that’s a huge part of the game for me, and something I love to watch.

***

It’s a good time to be a home run fan, and even better if, like me, you’re a Yankees fan. The team set a record this year by homering in 31 consecutive games. My mother and I text back and forth during Yankee games. To be honest, it’s mostly commentary by my mother about how much she hates Michael Kay. But every time the Yankees hit a home run, she’ll send me a GIF of someone clapping or cheering and I’ll send one back. There are instances in my text history where it’s just GIFs galore, especially during that streak. My mother loves the home run as much as I do, and I could feel her excitement through our virtual high fives.

As the streak grew, each home run meant another text from her with the number and the baseball emoji next to it. How I loved watching those balls fly into the stands. How I loved the unmistakable sound of that connection, the sound that makes you look up and take notice because you know that ball is gone. Game after game, homer after homer, cheering for them to break the record, wondering what gif my mother would send when they did. Those home runs during the 31 games provided some exciting moments, but also provided me with some fun, special moments with my mother.

On the night they broke the record, I happened to be at my parents’ house. As Mom and I high-fived each other when DJ LeMahieu sent one flying, my father just shook his head and said: “There’s too many home runs.”

I’ll have the same conversation with my father until the end of time, I suppose. We’ll watch games together, with him disgusted by the number of balls going out of the park, and me cheering on every homer. It’s a good-natured argument, and he certainly doesn’t get mad when the Mets hit one out — he just wishes there was “more baseball.” But me? I contend that the home run is baseball. Hit those dingers out. Break those records. Bring the fans to their feet. It’s all good for the game.

Long live the home run.


writer, civil servant, yankee fan from birth
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Nice job Michele. For our millennial readers, you might want to include a sentence that tells them what a transistor radio is.

Mean Mr. Mustard
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Mean Mr. Mustard

I enjoy home runs as well, but I’d argue that the sheer number of them renders them less exciting. There’s no chance for bang-bang plays at the plate, no extra base taken because of a rushed throw. There’s no drama unless it’s a close game in the late innings, and even then when they’re commonplace they mean a little less. I started watching a Twins/Brewers matchup the other day…two home runs in the first three batters. I turned the game off. I just couldn’t find any joy in the fielders standing around waiting for the batter to finish his trot.… Read more »

MikeS
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MikeS

“MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has gone on record to say that the balls aren’t juiced, it’s just that Rawlings has gotten better at making them” This is bullshit. MLB owns Rawlings and even if they didn’t, Rawlings would do literally anything to make their most important (really only important) customer happy. If MLB said “We think the ball flies too far and too fast, can you do something about that?” Rawlings would reduce the coefficient of restitution or increase the coefficent of drag on the ball, most likely with input from MLB along the way. So Manfred throwing his hands… Read more »

Ken
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Ken

Not nearly as exciting as a line drive into the gap with runners on. Sorry. And yes, the quantity of home runs today dilutes the excitement of seeing someone hit it out.

seanmcb94
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seanmcb94

I agree, the most exciting play in baseball isn’t a home run (except maybe for walk-offs) unless it’s of the inside-the-park variety. I’d rather see a triple legged out or an awesome defensive play any day.

Alby
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Alby

Most “exciting” play? I don’t think that word means what you think it means. The home run is barely in the Top 10 most exciting baseball plays. If you think otherwise, look at the replay of any home run that doesn’t have the potential to be caught. Unless you’re a fan of the team, there’s nothing remotely exciting about it. Guy swings stick, stick hits ball. That’s it. Your claim that it’s good for the game is a completely unsupported opinion, one that is not borne out by the data on audience size — most homers ever is not being… Read more »

Mean Mr. Mustard
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Mean Mr. Mustard

You’re free to disagree with the author, but there’s no reason at all to be a dick about it.

frangipard
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frangipard

Car chases are exciting. Every movie should have seven.
Sugar is delicious. Add a cup to every recipe.

Nah.

Jamie
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Jamie

Count me among those who both love home runs *and* think there are too many in the game right now. The most exciting plays in baseball are made more exciting by their rarity.

Jon Rimmer
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Good job Michele. Your in-game texting relationship with your mother hits pretty close to home. Especially the part about hating Michael Kay. 🙂