For first time since '93, baseball might lack 50-homer hitter

Posted: Tuesday, September 23, 2003

NEW YORK Baseball's biggest sluggers look as if they've lost a little pop in their bats.

For the first full season since 1993, it appears neither Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa nor any of the game's top power hitters will reach 50 home runs.

Could it be because baseball started testing for steroids this season? Some players think so.

''You look at the home-run numbers and you look at the averages that have gone down this year,'' said Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, a two-time American League MVP. ''I think it's a telltale sign that it's having a positive effect.''

Before the 1994-95 strike, players hit at least 50 homers just 18 times. Babe Ruth in 1927 was the only one to hit 60 until Roger Maris had 61 in 1961.

Then came an unprecedented power barrage. Since the strike, players have reached 50 homers 18 times. Sosa topped 60 in three seasons and Mark McGwire did it twice, hitting a record 70 in 1998. Then in 2001, Bonds hit 73.

Going into the final week of this season, Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers led the major leagues with 47 homers. Bonds had 44 for San Francisco, tied for second with Philadelphia's Jim Thome.

''There was a time when 60 was just an easy thing to do for guys,'' Giants manager Felipe Alou said.

While the big bashers have dropped off, the overall average hasn't. There has been an average of 2.14 homers a game this year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, up from 2.09 last season. Still, it's below the three peak years: 2.28 in 1999, 2.34 in 2000 and 2.25 in 2001.

''Things go in cycles,'' Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.

Bob Costas, a longtime baseball broadcaster and author, says it's too early to tell if there's a link between drug tests and the power drop at the top.

''Is it possible that there will be some positive, long-range effect? Yes. But I wouldn't jump to that conclusion yet,'' Costas said.

Bonds spent much of the season dealing with the death of his father, Bobby. The 39-year-old outfielder, who has repeatedly denied ever using steroids, has played in just 124 games, averaging a home run per 8.5 at-bats. Sosa has played 132 games, missing time because of a beaning and a suspension. He has 36 homers, an average of one per 13.8 at-bats.

''A lot of the big home run guys got hurt and had some time off,'' said the Dodgers' Rickey Henderson, another former MVP. ''Barry Bonds had a real big tragedy, and Sammy Sosa's been on the DL and got suspended because of a corked bat, so maybe it threw his timing off.''

Former MVPs Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti have said many players use steroids. Last year, the players' association agreed for the first time to allow testing.

All players gave urine samples this year as part of ''survey'' testing, with samples taken twice from each player within a given week. In addition, the commissioner's office had the right to test up to 240 players randomly.

If more than 5 percent of players test positive for steroids this year, ''program'' testing will start next season. If that happens, players who test positive would undergo treatment, and if they test positive a second time, they could be suspended for up to 15 days.

Results of this season's testing won't be available until after the season.

Cubs pitcher Mike Remlinger doesn't believe there's a link between testing and the power drop-off among top hitters, in part because players caught using steroids this season won't get in trouble.

Dodgers reliever Paul Shuey disagrees, saying the start of testing is the only explanation.

''I would have expected to see somebody hit 50 home runs after the way it's been going the last few years,'' he said. ''That's the only change I could see.''

Officials from management and the union downplayed steroid testing as a reason 50 homers might not be reached.

''There's been talk about some guys showing up to camp slimmer, but I think a lot of the talk does players a disservice,'' said Gene Orza, the union's No. 2 official. ''Barry Bonds would have had 50 homers, but he was out.''

Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, said it was simply another cyclical baseball trend. And, after all, pitchers have a lot to do with it, too.

''There are a number of very good young pitchers who are maturing and having an impact,'' he said.

AP Sports Writers Nancy Armour, Rick Gano and Janie McCauley contributed to this story.



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