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March 30, 2011
A Solo Shot
Fans come out to the ballpark for a variety of reasons, from cheap family fun to the intricacies of the hit-and-run to the devastating ruin of Pedro Martinez's changeup. Baseball has something for everyone. There is no denying, however, the almost universal appeal of the home run. Purists will tell you that they would rather witness a 1-0 combined three-hitter that's not decided until the ninth inning over a 10-8 slugfest with five different home runs, and it may even be true. But there's a reason the mound was lowered in 1969, the designated hitter was added in 1973, and the "steroid era" was so popular at the turnstiles. Greg Maddux said it best: "Chicks dig the longball."
The observation is no longer new, but that doesn't stop it from being true: the offensive era we live in today, even as the "steroid era" disappears beyond the horizon, is very different from years past. When the home run rate dropped in 2010 to slightly below 1 home run per game per team, pundits all over the country started saying baseball was entering a new "golden age of the pitcher" - all because a fan could expect to see only two home runs a game on average. Needless to say, fans in other eras weren't so demanding of their sluggers.
There were 4,600+ home runs hit in 2010 by 494 different batters. Only two of these 494 managed at least 40 home runs during the season, with another 15 or so cranking out 30 or more home runs. To these players, and many more, the home run is taken for granted. "Oh, you didn't hit one today? Don't worry. You'll get it tomorrow." When it took Alex Rodriguez two weeks to move from career home run number 599 to number 600, the New York tabloids told us that the world was about to collapse (as if it were W.P. Kinsella's newest story, "The Last Home Run Before Armageddon"). Home runs don't come at will, no matter what The Babe Ruth Story tells us.
Five players in 2010 hit a home run in their first major league at-bat. One of these five was Daniel Nava, whose first career major league at-bat lasted only one pitch and ended with a grand slam. Only one other player has ever been known to do that in history. Funnily enough, it was the only home run Nava would hit in 188 plate appearances in 2010. Seventy other players hit their first career home run in 2010, an achievement they'll all remember for the rest of their lives. None will remember it quite like Duane Kuiper, however.
It seems almost no fair that, say, Steve Hill was able to hit is first career home run in his first (and only) big league game while players the likes of Duane Kuiper are forced to wait nearly three years of full time play (and then never again) before hitting his. But that's the nature of baseball. You never know who is going to come through, or how.
They say hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in sports. If that's true, then what's hitting a home run? It's obviously tougher than just hitting a baseball. I guess we'll have to go beyond sports when describing the difficulty of hitting a homer: "hitting a home run is the toughest thing to do in life", perhaps? For some people, like Duane Kuiper, that may be more true than we'd like to admit.
Two more steps to go.
Finally. His cleats touch home plate and the run is now official. Duane Kuiper has joined the ranks of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson as "home run hitters" and it only took 1,533 plate appearances. Buddy Bell is the first to greet a smiling, clapping Kuiper at home. From there, his whole team shows up on the dugout steps, ready to congratulate the newest home run king. The joy is everywhere in the Cleveland clubhouse, just as it should be after a home run.