Rabbit Ball Redux: When going deep goes too far

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By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Somewhere, down a cobweb-cloaked Internet alleyway or in the comment section of a listicle, the debate rages over the greatest baseball video game of all-time.

For some, it’s a modern offering with contemporary graphics and features. For others, it’s the nostalgia play: the memories of hours of childhood button-mashing.

You might find 1988’s RBI Baseball way too primitive when you stack it up against today’s competition. Heck, you might even prefer Bases Loaded, released on Nintendo the same year. But it was the only Nintendo cart of its time to feature real MLB rosters.

And given the date of its release, those pixelated players sure could go yard. Because 32 summers ago, something was up.

Before the Steroid Era popped the lid off the proverbial snake nut can of baseball records, keeping track of big power seasons was easy. The 500-home run club was less than half its current size. Back in the 80’s, nobody had a 50-homer season. Just 12 players topped 40.

But in 1987, multiple sluggers made a run at 50. Andre Dawson blasted 49 homers to win the NL MVP. Mark McGwire similarly smacked 49 to collect the AL Rookie of the Year trophy. George Bell took the AL MVP with 47 dingers. And two-time NL MVP Dale Murphy had his last great season with 44 round-trippers.

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Slide a copy of RBI into your old NES, select the AL and NL All-Star teams and watch the homers fly!

My friend Jay and I had an epic RBI rivalry; often with an absurd amount of yelling and carrying on over a well-placed three-run shot (to the annoyance of our roommates). He was always the Twins, and if Gaetti, Puckett, Hrbek or Brunansky didn’t get you, number eight hitter, “The Laundry Man,” Tim Laudner (a career-high 16 homers in ’87) would undoubtedly launch a blast that’d make Earl Weaver proud  and leave me apoplectic.

Hitters have career years all the time. But in ’87, everybody and Sam Horn (14 homers in 158 at-bats for the Red Sox) seemed to be having one.

Cleveland infielder Brook Jacoby cracked 32, besting his previous career high by 12.

Who the heck is Larry Sheets? I have a lot of baseball cards and a memory like an elephant, but I don’t remember the guy. He left the yard 31 times for the Orioles.

Philly speedster Juan Samuel averaged 10 clouts a season across a 16-year MLB career. He had 28 homers in ’87.

Former Red Sox third base coach Dale Sveum had 25 taters. He only ventured into double-digits one other time in a 14-year career.

And Boston Hall of Famer Wade Boggs finally set his sights over the Green Monster, launching 24 blasts, or 20 percent of the total he accumulated in 18 years.

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Twenty-eight players hit more than 30 home runs in 1987, a 215 percent jump over the previous summer. Seventy-eight hitters tagged 20 or more – an increase of 18 from 1986. In the wake of a damaging mid-decade cocaine scandal and offseason accusations of owner collusion, the bright, shiny object was the ball going over the wall.

No one at the league office would speak to the presence of a “juiced,” or “rabbit ball,” though plenty of players and coaches unleashed their own personal theories on the press. Sports Illustrated scribe Frank Deford credited a smaller strike zone, the weather, baseball players beginning “to take training seriously” (gulp) and a generation of pitchers who’d been traumatized as kids by aluminum bats.

Others were concerned about the lasting effects of suspected equipment manipulation. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, who’d seen Babe Ruth break the game out of the Dead Ball Era, warned, “slap hitters have turned bashers and are swatting balls over fences,” arguing the homer influx was “cheapening the product” and “profaning America’s game.”

Deford admitted the rise in power was “consistent with our 1987 world, our fast-food, USA Today, no-money-down, MTV world.”

In total, 4,458 home runs were hit in the summer of ’87, over 600 more than the year before (which had set the previous Major League record) and a full 1,200 more than three seasons prior. The game wouldn’t again reach such aerodynamic heights until 1996, when a combination of factors ushered in the most incredible offensive era in baseball history.

The next year, things were back to normal. Just five players topped 30 homers in 1988, with 1,200 fewer balls leaving the yard.

Things were OK without the power of ‘87. Kirk Gibson made a memory at the World Series. Jose Canseco became the first to submit a 40-40 season, wresting the MVP from Boston upstart Mike Greenwell. And the game moved on.

We saw a power dip following the Steroid Era, as well. With six no-hitters in 2010, some hailed another Year of the Pitcher. There’d be an astounding seven no-nos in 2012. Total home runs dipped to a 19-year low in 2014. Seven more no-hitters followed the year after that.

Then, suddenly, the ball started flying again, starting with 5,610 dingers in 2016. An all-time high of 6,105 in 2017. In fact, the past three seasons are among the five biggest homer campaigns of all time. Last month, 2019 joined that list, on pace for a new record of around 6,800 home runs.

At first, the influx was attributed to a focus on launch angle and the exit velocity generated when power pitchers face hitters who’ve been encouraged to strike out more in the interest of generating big flies.

But this much power? I know Back to the Future Part II (which came out in 1989) correctly predicted that Miami would have a baseball team and the Cubs would eventually win the World Series, but is this the brand of futuristic baseball they expected? To reference another old NES game, this is just shy of Base Wars.

The Twins just smashed the Yankees’ one-year old team record for most homers in a season. It's the first week of September. Last month, the moribund Orioles plowed past the all-time record for home runs allowed. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. jacked 91 dingers in the All-Star Home Run Derby. His father (under different rules) won the 2007 contest with 17.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays competes in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Progressive Field on July 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays competes in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Progressive Field on July 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In 2019, nearly 100 players have clubbed 20 or more homers. That’s a bunch more than in 1987, and there’s still three weeks left in the season.

Nearly 50 percent of runs are now scored on long balls. With the classic “three true outcomes” more and more likely to be the only results of an at-bat, will fans turn up for that shell game? TV ratings and attendance figures say meh.

The ’87 boom seemed like fun. It made for great debate, an addictive video game, and an interesting blip on baseball cards. But with Major League Baseball entering its fourth consecutive year of cheap thrills, one has to wonder if this most recent attempt to generate interest in the game is hitting a sour note.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.