Evolution: A World Series perspective

The Red Sox and the Rockies are like monkeys. The Texas Rangers are like woolly mammoths. The two teams competing in the World Series this week — the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies — nimbly and perhaps subconsciously adapted to a changing baseball climate in what anthropology majors might call “evolution.” Teams like Texas, on the other hand, saw their season go extinct — they’re sitting at home this week.

Survival of the fittest? Something like that. These teams have figured out that baseball is now entering a new dead ball era.

Recent history showed us this was coming. The 2002 Anaheim Angels and the 2003 Florida Marlins seemed to start this trend. Both had lineups that contained only one bona fide home run hitter. They relied on young players with speed who could get on base and manufacture runs. It resembled “dead ball era” baseball from the early 1900s.

This “power outage,” however, is a result of changes in the players rather than the ball. While nobody but author extraordinaire Jose Canseco may know who took steroids, it is clear that they constituted an important part of baseball for the last decade. The league wide home run total declined from an average of 182 per team in 2004 to 165 per team in 2007, almost a 10 percent decrease.

Teams must compensate, and they have learned not to depend on the long ball. Teams still hopelessly devoted to signing veteran power hitters — like the Orioles and Rangers to name just a couple — saw players like Sammy Sosa, Aubrey Huff and Miguel Tejada experience frustration with their inability to clear the fences. And it showed in their records — neither of those teams so much as sniffed the postseason.

The teams that succeeded this year, the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Red Sox and Indians all adapted to the changing climate. While players like Todd Helton, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz can still whack gopher balls, their power numbers declined sharply. Home runs turned into doubles. These teams compensated.

The key to their success was an influx of young hitters, who, once drafted, were promoted through the minors and eventually called up to the majors in the post-steroid era.

Rookies, and recent imports like Troy Tulowitzki, (America is still wondering: “Tulowhoski?”), Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen (already better than J.D.) Drew and Kazuo (not the musical instrument) Matsui employ swings untainted by Barry Bonds’ shadow. They hit singles, steal bases and generally wreak havoc so that by the time the “big boppers” take their swings, a double will score a run. The home run is no longer an absolute necessity.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, however. This year could be a coming-out party for small ball players and a blueprint for post-steroid baseball, but Americans will always love the home run. It remains an electrifying momentum changer. An easy example: J.D. Drew’s screamer of a grand slam appears to be what jump-started the Red Sox offense in the American League Championship Series against Cleveland last week.

The question is, which teams will continue to sign players who put on spectacular long ball displays and languish in the standings cellar? I hear Barry Bonds is looking for work in the American League. Maybe he should contact a certain team in Arlington, Texas — I hear they like over-the-hill power hitters. Just don’t expect them to be golfing homers next postseason. They’ll be on the golf course. Or watching the playoffs from home. Or in a glacier wondering, “Why did our playoff hopes become extinct?”

Collin Gutman is a sophomore in Pierson College.

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