The year was 1998 — the summer of Mark and Sammy. The summer of the original chase and not the GSN’s version that features ‘The Beast.’ It was the summer that arguably brought Major League Baseball back from the pit after the strike in ’94 and ushered in the PED era.
The chase for Roger Maris’ single season home run record by St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs Sammy Sosa had everyone hanging on each swing. It made baseball exciting, the phrase ‘Chicks dig the Long Ball’ couldn’t have been more on point. Home runs now sail to distances of 430-plus feet.
MLB’s transition away from ‘small ball’ to the ‘long ball’ began during the 1950s but hit it’s finite point with the chase. From 1962 to 1987, eight players stole over 100 bases in a season (Ricky Henderson did it three times) and there has been zero since. This season, the Dodgers Dee Gordon won the stolen base title with 64.
Going into the World Series, the Kansas City Royals had stolen 13 in the postseason alone.
The tired and true adage “speed kills” — what the Royals displayed especially during this postseason run which is similar to the Chicago ‘Go-Go’ White Sox run of 1959 — have pundits believing that maybe, just MAYBE having speed and athleticism, the return of ‘small ball,’ is the way to build a championship franchise.
“Other teams might be paying attention,” said MLB analyst Tim Kurkjian on Pardon the Interruption Tuesday. “What the Royals did was they went out and traded for and acquired a bunch of athletes. … They went out and got some guys that can really run and who can do things athletically to improve their defense.
“So maybe teams are noticing that this is much more of an athletic sport than people give it credit for.”
For African American males, let’s hope that it will be.
It’s no secret, stereotyping be damned, that African Americans are traditionally the fastest and most athletic in sports. The National Football League, one of the most athletic sports globally, is 66.72 percent African American. The National Basketball Association, who arguably has the most athletic individuals of any sport, is 72.2 percent African American.
It’s also no secret that there’s only 8.05 percent African Americans in MLB (compared to 20 percent during the 1980s and ’90s). But the dynamics of the Royals success can change that.
If MLB owners began using Kansas City’s model, it’s only feasible that acquiring African American players would be necessary to build the fastest, most athletic team you can to win. (The Royals themselves have three, with two, Lorenzo Cain (ALCS MVP) and Jarrod Dyson starters.) Since Pee Wee Reese won the stolen base title in 1952, every stolen base winner since has been African American players (Omar Moreno and Jose Reyes notwithstanding). And four of the top six all-time are African Americans.
It’s also no coincidence that the fastest and most athletic African Americans play in the outfield where they can use their abilities to track down fly balls (cue Willie Mays “The Catch”) and strength to gun down runners without the use of a cutoff man.
For African Americans to regain our presence in MLB, we should cheer on Kansas City as if they’re the Monarchs. For MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program to be a success, MLB should be rooting for Kansas City as if the game’s life depends on it.
Small ball can be the funnel that allows African Americans the opportunity to do what they do best (run faster, jump higher and throw farther) in a sport that has quietly pushed them out the back door — to be great.