The Big Hit | Of Homers and No-N0’s…

by Ken Napzok

September baseball is here. The air is getting crisp and sharp. Playoff runs are picking up or dying on the vine. The last of the 40-man roster call ups are making their dreams come true. And the long journey of a baseball season is about to reward those that have been on the adventure from the start. 

It all comes into focus. 

The (new) Year of the Home Run has produced an amazing amount of offensive stats, records, and feats and, fittingly enough, as the season draws to a close, the most exciting race isn’t the chase for the wild card or a division — the Central divisions of both leagues contain the only true close races — it’s the chase for the home crown. 

At the time of this writing, the home run leader board is an exciting, leapfrogging affair that has the immediate future of the game in great shape.

The leading number is 45 — probably 46, 47, or 48 by the time you read this — and the names are fresh and new.

Mike Trout, still only 27, is the old guard here. The heir apparent to the great sluggers of baseball’s lore.

Around him is Pete Alonso and his record setting rookie campaign.

Cody Bellinger and his west coast, walk off uppercut.

Christian Yelich and his absolute cementing of his star status.

Eugenio Suarez hit two on Sunday to make sure you don’t overlook him and even Jorge Soler is out in Kansas City having the type of career year that forever changes your direction — and contract. 

It is hard to recall a home run race this fun, loud, and consistent since McGwire and Sosa chased a record and changed the game at any cost. Which makes this one even more entertaining. It’s hard to rain on this (home run) parade. 

Watching these players actively chase down the number one spot on the leaderboard is history in the making.

When you hear your grandfather talk about watching Mantle, Mays, and Snider compete for the title of best centerfielder in New York… and the world. When you read those tales of Gerhig or Ruth in 1927 and Dimaggio and Williams in ‘41.

When you lived through the slugging seasons of 1987 or 1998 or drafted Colorado Rockies players on your Fantasy Team in the early 200s,  it’s easy to put all of that into a history book and not see what’s happening in front of you. 

Is this a claim that Jorge Soler is the next Willie Mays? No. Not at all. And he doesn’t need to be. These are the sluggers of this age. The names we need to know — and pay attention to — now. 

Every time Pete Alonso reaches out and launches a 400-foot opposite field home run, you should file that away into your memory.

These are the stories you’ll one day be telling a young rapscallion trying to enjoy the new fandangled game of the present without your silly nostalgia. 

“You know, I saw Mike Trout hit a 600-foot home run onto the 57 freeway…”

“Sure, you did, Grandpa. Sure you did.” 

Yet… you did because history is happening right now. A great chapter in the annals of slugging. Trout, Alonso, Yelich, and more are locked in a battle and the final chapter is here. This is the reward of September baseball.

There are those that don’t invest in the game during the hopeful spring or dog days of August. It’s almost understandable. It’s more than a long season — it’s a journey.

This pastoral game only faces more and more challenges to retaining its audience each season. Kids and their phones, exit velocities, and launch angles… or something.

However, you should not focus on that. You’ve been here since the first crack of bat hitting ball in spring and you’ve earned this month. 

Bat. Ball. Home run. It is THE sound of baseball.

And, yes, it’s a sound we’ve heard a lot of this season. The amount of players with three home run games and team’s setting club records for home runs with one month still to play is stunning and noticeable. Yet this game does not need that cynicism right now.

Maybe it does later? No… that doesn’t sound right.

Baseball is best played on the field, not in conferences rooms or television studios with people debating juiced balls, bat flips, and whether or not C-3PO would be a good umpire. 

Let them play. 

Pitchers might not agree. Justin Verlander has been very vocal about the state of the actual baseballs this season. And, again, it’s hard to imagine what he said back in July about juiced balls, MLB owning Rawlings, and the unlikely chance of coincidence behind the offensive spike being wrong.

So, yes, maybe that gets dealt with later. Which makes Verlander’s feat on Sunday, September 1st all the more impressive and justified. 

For all the home runs flying out in any era, there is nothing more beautiful than the 27 outs of a no-hitter.

No matter how many times you see one.

No matter who throws it.

A no-hitter and it’s more attractive sibling the perfect game are works of art painted from a mound of dirt. Justin Verlander has done it twice before, but to the casual viewer this one had a spirited bite to it.

With each recorded out of the lively Blue Jay offense, Verlander seemed to be making a statement: You still have to hit them. 

September is here and history books are being written as we watch. The journey that began this spring is about to come to a beautiful, thrilling end. And then the real reward arrives…


Power Rankings

The baseball week that was

5 – Skins over Shirts

If you squint hard enough, Citi Field is not so much the home of the once hapless turned hopeful New York Mets as it is a pick-up game of basketball in action on a hot asphalt court. After Pete Alonso notched a walk-off base on balls against the Phillies on Sept. 6th, his teammates ripped off his jersey just as he had done in August when Michael Conforto won a game against the Nationals.

A new tradition of shirtless, ecstatic Mets running around a field has been born. Baseball loves traditions and grown men celebrating by ripping the shirts off of their co-workers is now added to that list.

As James Earl Jones, said, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been (shirtless) baseball.”

4 – Touching them all 

You hear a lot about the fundamentals of baseball. The little things you have to learn, practice, and master to compete at the game’s highest levels.

Don’t forget those fundamentals. Astros prospect Miguelangel Sierra launched a ball over the fence for his Fayetteville Woodpeckers (God, I love minor league team names.) and rounded the bases like a conquering hero after breaking up a no-hitter in a playoff game. 

Then he jumped on home plate. Then he missed it. Then the opposing team appealed. And Sierra was out. Kids, remember your baseball fundamentals. Catch with two hands. Get in front of the ball. And touch them all. Touch. Them. All.

3 – Aristides Aquino

One of the best parts of playing fantasy baseball is hearing all the hubbub over the coming season’s can’t miss future stars.

Especially on draft day. (assuming you’re one of the leagues that still drags out all of the owners to sit in one room for hours surviving only on donuts, pizza, and warm soda.)

Everyone has their list of hidden gems, late round future studs, and Hall of Famers. Some names slip down the lists. One of my personal humble brags is when my co-owner Corey and I drafted some kid named Albert Pujols for $3 late in our 2001 draft. (A lot of eyes and dreams were on Pedro Feliz that season.) 

All that to say, I never once heard the name Aristides Aquino back in March when my league met. All the donuts and warm soda in the world didn’t reveal that name to these well-researched fantasy GMs… or the real ones.

Aquino was a non-tendered free agent in the off-season AND exposed in the Rule 5 draft. No one grabbed him. Which makes the Cincinnati Reds outfielder’s August run and September push all the more impressive.

His 14 home runs in August put him on a list with names like Mark McGwire, Aaron Judge, and Frank Robinson. He hit is 15th this past week. Aristides Aquino’s name wasn’t on anyone’s mind prior to this run, but now it’s name you have to know. 

2 – Mike Lorenzen: The Babe Ruth of his Generation

Babe Ruth and Mike Lorenzen. Two names forever connected thanks to a rare feat the two-way playing Reds player accomplished on September 4th.

Lorenzen was the winning pitcher of record in a game that also saw him go deep and play in the field. Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, that mythical legend of the game, last pulled that off in 1921. The only other time that’s been done.

Quite a feat for the relief pitching slugger that both harkens back to a by-gone era of pro ball and makes you think about those little league glory days when the star pitcher was usually the best athlete on the team.

Lorenzen finished the week with a walk-off hit to boot. Impressive week. I hope he bragged about it to the reports on the team locomotive as they rode off to the next town. 

 1- Aaron Barrett’s Dreams

Reaching the major leagues is a dream for many, but a reality for few. Often that one shot at making it does not come with a chaser if it doesn’t happen.

Pitcher Aaron Barrett had two seasons under his belt when a broken arm seemed to take his career away in 2016. His last major league pitch thrown was on August 5th, 2015.

It all could have easily been in the rearview mirror for Barrett. However, he dug in, learned to throw again — not pitch — just simply throw — and fought his way back to the roster of the Washington Nationals.

Three outs later — including a three pitch K of Ronald Acuna Jr — and Barrett was officially back on the books as a major leaguer.

Of all the images and sounds that filled the baseball week, none was as powerful as Aaron Barrett walking off the mound, returning to the dugout, and crying out every tear of frustration, pain, doubt, and now joy that the last four years brought. Truly the number one event of the week.

In the Bullpen…

Quick thoughts on the week ahead.

Can the Mets recover from their weekend with the Phillies?

Now just two games over five hundred, the season is back the brink. The fact that they are even this close to the wild card in a season that has found them discovering new ways to lose early on, is impressive. But this just might be the week that makes or breaks them. 

Which team is going to set their club home run record? The Yankees set their own with Aaron Judge’s bomb in Boston on Sunday night. In this year of the long ball, what team will be next to etch this year down in history?

How will the Dodgers celebrate? Their magic number has dwindled down to next to nothing, so the corks will be popped this week.

Impressive season, but everyone clocking into work at Chavez Ravine knows what the goal is: the World Series win that has eluded this organization since Rick Dempsey lifted Orel Hershiser into his arms.

This week in baseball history…

The 1989 baseball season was dominated by news outside of the white lines of the game.

The ‘89 World Series will forever be the Earthquake Series and all summer long the unraveling baseball life of Pete Rose and A. Bartlett Giametti, the new commissioner trying to bring him to justice, were the names in the headlines. Giametti got Rose to accept a lifetime ban from the game and 8 days later he passed away of a heart attack. 

Just twelve days after the death of Giametti, his deputy commissioner Fay Vincent — who had actually led the investigation into Rose — became the 8th commissioner of Major League Baseball.

His tenure was a short three years and he won’t be remembered for changing the game or presiding over great seasons of growth and popularity. Instead Vincent had to be the face of baseball during the earthquake, battle larger than life George Steinbrenner, and put out the fires of the 1990 spring training owners’ lockout.

Vincent did, however, help usher in 1993’s expansion to Colorado and Miami and the realignment of baseball’s divisions that he wanted, did happen. (Though not exactly as he envisioned.) The designated hitter position he wanted to go away did survive, though.

Vincent’s reign came to an end in 1992 when the owners registered a 18-9 vote of no confidence in him, making him the baseball version of Star Wars’ Chancellor Valorum. Bud Selig, an owner, became the next commissioner. However, let’s not forget Fay Vincent and his short term of influence that began  thirty years ago this very week

Remember when… 

… Game Winning RBI was a stat?

There is perhaps nothing more dramatic than a walk-off hit. That final swing that decides a fierce contest made a clutch hitter. And those prime time hitters can strike earlier as well. Bases-loaded. Bottom of the 7th. Down by two runs.

Who do you want at the plate? You want a clutch hitter. Anyone can drive in a run in the second inning with a weak ground ball out. 

The money is made in higher pressure situations and in 1980 baseball introduced a stat to measure this very high level of clutch: The game-winning RBI. It was like a win, but for the batter!

The GWRBI was going to change the way superstars were measured and therefore made. 

Except — you know — to get credit for this Stat of Stats you just had to drive in the run that put your team ahead for good.

Which meant, of course, that several weak ground ball outs that drove in a run back in the second inning were deciding games and that player was going down in history as the one with the Game-Winning Run Batted In. 

Sooooo… clutch? 

The stat ran officially from 1980 to 1988 before quietly fading away, but it has not been forgotten by stat head fans of that era. (I mean, we all know Mike Greenwell had 23 of them for the Red Sox in 1988, right?) It’s easy to mock this stat now, but that’s a pretty narrow minded view. 

The GWRBI should also be remembered as a precursor to the more modern era of statistics we live in now as well as the very thinking behind the baseball stats we fall in love with.

This is about the number behind the number. The true measure of the player indeed.  In this age of Sabermetric stats that are often maligned, begrudgingly celebrated, and definitely confusing to Goose Gossage, statistics like the GWRBI, OPS, and even the save (itself a new and therefore frowned upon stat to the old guard in 1969) should be given their credit for trying to give credit to the accomplishments that we don’t always see.

For all the jokes about innocuous sacrifice flies turning into game deciding moments, the GWRBI did line up with the truth.

The all-time leader for this official era was Keith Hernandez with 129 during his glory days with the Cardinals and Mets while Baltimore’s Eddie Murray tallied 117 over in the American League. They were proven stars. Clutch performers.

And this mirco-stat reflected that. The rookie records for GWRBI show the same thing where names like Wally Joyner, Jose Cancseco, Mark McGwire, and Darryl Strawberry set high marks for the up and comers of the day. Even one of the best hitting pitchers of the day, Rick Rhoden, gets his due as the former Pirate and mustache wearer tied with Rick Mahler for most GWRBI among pitchers with three.

The Game Winning RBI is certainly a fun relic from another age, but don’t let nostalgia make you overlook the ever changing game we love and the stats that measure it. 

Beyond The Book Price: A quick glance at your favorite baseball cards

In 1988, the baseball card world was turned on its head with the arrival of Score.

After years of living in a collector’s landscape with only Donruss, Fleer, and the granddaddy of them all, Topps to choose from, (occasional interlopers and collectors cards buried in cereal boxes notwithstanding.) the upstart Score brand was all set to change the game a year before Upper Deck arrived. 

And it did. 

Crisp, vibrant actions shoots replaced the old, grainy, stoic pictures we were used to. Bright colors dominated the designs and brought variety to the collection.

The stats jumped off the card backs and the player bios read like mini-articles. There was even a picture on the back meaning you got TWO chances to look at Pat Sheridan, Phil Bradley, and Bill Doran! Each Score card seemed like a poster pulled off the wall and put into your hands. It truly helped usher in a new era in card collecting… for better or worse. 

There are some that point to 1988 Score as a bad precursor of what followed. Higher priced cards, too many collections to collect each season, and designs that were all gloss and no character. Through the looking glass of history that’s hard to dispute, but nothing can take away the feelings of anticipation and wonder when your school yard pals started showing up with the first packs. 

It all looked new and modern. You felt like you were part of living history. (Funny, because Donruss and Fleer weren’t exactly old at the time) Each card revealed something fresh and exciting as if you were seeing the astroturf beneath Frank White’s feet for the first time.

A particularly favorite were Score’s version of Rated Rookies, Future Stars, and Gold Cup rookies of the other brands, the bluntly named Rookie Prospect cards.

Here you could collect future All-Stars and Hall of Famers like Tom Glavine, Gregg Jefferies, Roberto Kelly, Rob…Ducey, uh, Kirk Manwaring, and, of course,  Randy Milligan. (We had to wait until the 1988 Score traded set for the likes of ‘88 newcomers like Craig Biggio and Roberto Alomar.) 

1988 Score had spelling errors, players history would forget, and the weirdest smell of any card. (Industrial… plastic?), but it will forever be remembered as the card set that said these aren’t the cards your father and uncle put in their bicycle spokes — this was the future of baseball cards.

A future we held in our hands. 

Walk Off Quote

“There ain’t no genius here. Strategy in baseball is overrated. People say, ‘That Weaver, he plays for the long ball too much.’ You bet I do. Hit ’em out. Then I got no worry about somebody lousing up a bunt, I got no worry about the hit and run – and that’s really overrated – I got no worry about base-running errors. And I can’t screw it up myself.” – Earl Weaver, Hall of Famer manager, who knew nothing about exit velocity. 

Ken Napzok went hitless in his final little league season, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars, host of The Napzok Files podcast feed, and will never forget the signed picture he received from the late Gary Carter. 

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