Was the ball JUICED in 1987?
Was the ball JUICED in 1987?
What really happened in 1987? Was the ball juiced? Was the strike zone smaller? Did Red Sox fans want to forget the previous season? (Nothing different or weird there!) What caused the offensive explosion that was called “The Year of the Slugger?“ “Let’s go to the way back machine Sherman and find out?“ (Obscure Bullwinkle reference for those over 45 in the crowd, remember Sherman and Mr. Peabody. I know…if you have to explain it, it probably wasn’t very good in the first place.)
The season starts with a bang, Al Campanis on Nightline with Ted Koppel uttering those now infamous words about lacking the necessities to be executives in baseball. The result, Al was shown the door, thanks for playing we have lovely parting gifts for you. We should also remember, especially in this year of labour issues that in the winter leading up to the1987 season the owners were freezing out all the free agents. Tim Raines didn’t receive a single offer for his services and Andre Dawson had to sign a blank contract so that he could play for the Cubs. Dawson went on to win the National League MVP, the first player ever to win that award while toiling for a last place team.
The first big on-field story was the start by Team Streak, the Milwaukee Brewers winning 20 of their first 23 games. Of course they followed that by losing 18 of their next 20 falling into a .500 rut that was the Brewers season. Paul Molitor punctuated the Brewers season by going on a streak of his own; 39 straight games with a base hit.
But of course the biggest story of the year was the amazing increase in power, home runs flew out of the ball park at an incredible pace, by the end of the year National league homers were up by 301 and in the American League the increase was 344 over 1986. Many theories abounded, as I alluded to earlier, such luminaries as St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog and California manager Gene Mauch, put a juiced ball forward as the reason for the power increase. Other explanations were that everybody was swinging for the fences not caring about strikeouts; maybe it was a smaller strike zone, or perhaps an influx of young power hitters. On the field, the umpires were being asked to check bats at an alarming pace. Howard Johnson and Pedro Guerrero, among others were singled out. It didn’t help when Billy Hatcher broke a bat and it was discovered it was filled with cork. The next step was to accuse the pitchers of cheating, Mike Scott and Orel Hershisier were at the top of the list of ball scuffers, but once again it was a lesser light, Joe Niekro, who was caught on national television flicking away a nail file just before the umpires got to him, who was caught red handed. The pitchers were obviously trying everything to hold back the parade of dingers, 15 bench clearing brawls before the all-star break alone, stand as evidence of an increase of brush back pitches.
In the end, the power hitting Minnesota Twins emerged from the AL West, just edging out the Royals and the Bash Brothers from Oakland. Speaking of the A’s, Mark McGwire, foreshadowing what was to come, set a wicked homer pace early in the season before cooling off and settling for a rookie record 49 homers. In the American League East, the Red Sox couldn’t regain the magic of 1986 (BB, Before Buckner) even with Wade Boggs, Wade Boggs for gawds sake, slugging 24 homers. That left the Tigers and the preseason favorite Blue Jays to battle it out for the division. Who can forget that epic stretch drive, each team exchanging losing streaks before finally a Frank Tanana shutout clinched the AL East for the Motor City squad on the last day of the season.
Over in the National League, the go-go Cards parlayed speedy switch hitters that could play wonderful defense (led by the Wizard of Oz), a fine if unknown pitching staff, and a single power source by the name of Jack Clark to the NL East title. The main challenge came from the unlikely source of the Montreal Expos. Raines led the way, but Andres Galarraga and Tim Wallach were capable members of the supporting crew (213 RBI’s between them). The Expos also had the feel good story of the year with recovering alcoholic Dennis Martinez bouncing all the back to his previous glory with an 11-4 record. The Expos faded down the stretch and were overtaken by the defending World Champion New York Mets. The Mets however, were never really a factor in the East, unable to recover from the late start of Doc Gooden (he spent April in a drug rehab program…as we know now, failed) and a pitching staff that was decimated by injuries. New York closed with 92 victories and finished three games back of the Cards but really weren’t that close.
Over in NL West, the San Francisco Giants pieced together a pitching staff that led the league, thus cementing Roger Craig‘s reputation as a pitching genius. The Giants had just enough hitting to cruise to the division title by six games over the pundits pre-season pick the Reds.
A few notes to wrap up the regular season: The MVP’s went to the previously mentioned Dawson in the NL and in the junior circuit George Bell won out over the (more deserving) Tigers’ Alan Trammell. The NL Cy Young went to reliever Steve Bedrosian because the writers couldn’t give the award to a pitcher with an 8-16 record even if he did strike out 270 batters. Just think how bad Nolan Ryan‘s support must have been, Ryan had the lowest ERA in the majors among qualifiers for the title (2.76) and yet he could only manage eight wins. Roger Clemens won 20 games for the Red Sox and was an obvious choice for the AL Cy Young. There was no controversy regarding the choices for Rookie of the Year, as McGwire and Benito Santiago (34-game hitting streak) were runaway winners, in fact McGwire was a unanimous choice.
On to the post season. The surprising Minnesota Twins opened the ALCS at home against the overwhelming favorite Detroit Tigers. The Tigers had the best record in baseball and led the majors in runs and home runs. The pitching staff had three top rated starters (Jack Morris, Doyle Alexander and Tanana) and a deep bullpen. The Twins on the other hand won only 85 games including an incredible nine games on the road since the All-Star break! Minnesota’s biggest claim to fame was that their home park was condemned by everyone as being one of the worst in baseball. So with that as a prelude the Tigers roared into the Homerdome expecting to blow the Twins away. Well, a funny thing happened, it was the Tigers who couldn’t solve the Twins hitters as they pounded out a four games to one series victory. A key play in game four was a microcosm for the ALCS. Trailing two games to one, the Tigers had come back to make the score 4-3 and had runners on 2nd and 3rd with only one out. The Twins third pitcher of the game Juan Berenguer was on the mound when Gary Gaetti, the series MVP, signaled a pick off play. Tim Laudner executed perfectly, catching Darrell Evans leaning the wrong way. The Tigers spirit was broken and they never really challenged the Twins losing that game 5-3 before being dumped 9-5 in the series finale.
The Jeffrey Leonard show debuted in St. Louis as the Giants earned a split and Leonard unveiled his “one flap down” home run trot. By the end of game four, Leonard had set a LCS record with homers in four consecutive games and after game five the Giants held a 3-2 lead going back to St. Louis. However, the Giants never made it to St. Louis. They failed to score another run in the series and the Cards, behind the masterful pitching of John Tudor and Danny Cox, were going to the World Series, however they were minus slugger Jack Clark who was injured earlier in the NLCS.
The Twins started the World Series by blowing away the Cards 10-1. The telling blow was a Dan Gladden grand slam in the 4th. The 4th inning was the killer in game 2 as well, six runs were more than enough to put the Cardinals away. The final was 8-4 but it wasn’t that close. The Cardinals were clearly more comfortable back in Busch Stadium, a 3-1 St. Louis victory was followed up with a 7-2 thrashing that tied the series at 2 a piece. The Cards jumped out to a 4-0 lead but long shot by Gaetti (it would have cleared the fence in the Homer Dome) popped out of Willie McGee‘s glove as McGee crashed into the wall drove in 2 and left Gaetti at third. The Twins couldn’t muster another hit and St. Louis held on for a 4-2 victory leaving the Cards one win away from a World Championship.
The bad news was that they were going to have to go back to the loudest baseball stadium ever, the good news was that no team had ever won the World Series by winning four in its own park. Tudor and Joe Magrane were scheduled to start games 6 and 7 where they would face Les Straker and Frank Viola. Surely the advantage in pitching match-ups went to the Cards. The team they called the “out-of-gas gang” held a 5-2 lead going into the bottom of the fifth. They couldn’t hold it when the Twins exploded for four in the fifth and then punctuated the comeback with a Kent Hrbek grand slam in 6th to seal an eventual 11-5 victory forcing an ultimate game seven finale to the “year of the slugger.“
The umpires did their best to put their stamp on the proceedings by missing a good game but it was still perhaps the best game of the series featuring timely hitting, excellent pitching, and a bone crunching collision at the plate courtesy of a great Vince Coleman throw that nailed Gaetti in the 5th inning that left the game tied. The Twins were able to plate single runs in the 6th and 8th and that was enough for Series MVP, Viola and closer Jeff Reardon to close out the championship. An improbable champion in an improbable year. Now you know what really happened in the year of the slugger, 1987By The Baseball Page
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