As the Major League Baseball season enters the stretch run to fall, this is shaping up to be the summer of slam: Baseballs are flying out of the park at a record pace. But nowhere is this power surge more noticeable than right here in Kansas City. Commentator Victor Wishna explains, in this mid-season edition of “A Fan’s Notes.”
The sound ... is unmistakable.
Crack. “High fly ball! Deep left field! Gone!”
Of all familiar sports feats, perhaps none is as glorified as the home run. It’s the stuff that movie endings are made of, held up as a symbol of singular achievement from the Hall of Fame to the hallway outside your office: “Hey Bob, just saw that latest sales report — seems like you really knocked it out of the park!”
As a metaphor, it even mixes its way into other sports. You know what football coaches call that running back who can score on any play? A real “home run threat.”
Certainly, home-run hitters seem unstoppable. The defense can only watch. Heck, hit a home run and you don’t even have to run home; just trot. After pitchers, these lords of the long-ball are the highest-paid players in the Major Leagues.
Which may explain, in part, why for more than a generation — throughout their history, really — the Kansas City Royals have been sorely lacking in the HR department. The franchise record, set by Steve Balboni back in 1985, still stands at a mere 36 homers — a performance that doesn’t even rank in the top 500 all-time.
But don’t blame old "Bye-Bye Balboni" — this decades-long power outage has been a real team effort. Yes, Kauffman Stadium is one of baseball’s biggest parks. But the club record of 168 home runs, worst in the league, has now lasted thirty seasons — twenty-one different teams hit more than that just last year. Indeed, for a generation, the Royals’ only slugger was the mascot.
Yet, as you may have noticed, something’s different this time. The Royals are on a bit of a power trip.
The face of it belongs to third-baseman Mike Moustakas, who has already set a team record by belting 25 homers before the current All-Star break. Yeah, it’s only half a season, but it’s the greatest half season by a Royals power hitter in franchise history. He ranks third in the American League, and this week became the first Royal to take part in a Home Run Derby since … Danny Tartabull? It’s okay if you don’t remember. It happened 26 years ago, and, well, it wasn’t even televised.
Moose isn’t the only one letting loose. Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain are just a few dingers shy of their own career highs, with seventy-five games to go. As a team, the Royals are on pace to shatter their paltry home-run record, may it rest in pieces.
Best of all, after a dismal start, the boys in blue have climbed back into contention.
Yet home runs aren’t the biggest part of the equation. The Royals have been smashing the ball pretty consistently since April, but that alone couldn’t keep them out of the cellar. A home run is only that — one run — unless others can get on base.
It’s a romantic notion, this idea that you can do it all yourself with just one swing. But that’s not the essence of baseball, and never was.
Until 1930, a home run was awarded for any ball that got over the fence — even if it bounced first. Nonetheless, trying to hit a home run — and risking an easy fly-out — was discouraged. Baseball’s roots lie in what today is called “small ball” or “manufacturing runs.” Teams were always meant to be assembly lines, and victories impossible without a true group effort.
In Kansas City, there is a bigger baseball drama at hand: will the Royals make one more magic run before time — and free agency — takes its toll? But the surprising surge, and Moose’s run at the record, sure is a nice side-plot. Being a Royals fan these days still means getting to see things that many of us have never seen before.
So we might as well enjoy it. You know, before it’s … gone!
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.