Just what baseball needs: young sluggers

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Baseball fans are weighed down with pessimism over the future of a game whose past is far more significant than that of any other in America.  All we hear now is how old we are and how the young don’t want to go to the ballyard or play the game, real or fantasy.  And how the pipeline of talent’s been all but shut off.

We look nostalgically to the 1990s, when 20-somethings were filling at least the cheap seats and were on their feet yelling while McGwire, Sosa and Bonds cranked all those prodigious home runs and everybody from commish on down was trying not to be concerned about chemistry outside the field or clubhouse.

There were, far as we know, some untainted heroes, such as Ken Griffey Jr., from Cincinnati, not outrageously muscled, steadily pounding homers, finishing at 630.

But we’ve been told there will be no more of his ilk, since African-Americans do not play baseball, with cities having few fields of dreams.  MLB’s commendable efforts to revive baseball in the inner cities (RBI) has created a few legions of young African-American fans, but has not yet produced much big-league talent.

What we’re seeing is a surprising influx of very athletic white kids who are built like linebackers – or at least run-stuffing safeties — apparently not chemically enhanced. 

There’s one that even the casual fan will recognize: Mike Trout, last year’s American League MVP.  Trout is 6-2, 235 pounds, growing out of the Little Leagues of Vineland, N.J.  At 23 he’s already notched 112 home runs for the Angels.

And there are more like him: Bryce Harper of the Nationals, Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joc Pederson of the Dodgers – all 23 or younger, all bashing home runs of shocking suddenness and majestic length.  Some of Harper’s popups are leaving the park.  Pederson’s line drives are clocked at 95 mph – exceeded in velocity only by those of Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, who’s 25 and has 19 home runs in 57 games.

Harper, 22, is 6-3, 225 pounds, and is polling almost as many All-Star votes as Trout.  He’s hit 19 home runs in 56 games and leads the National League in sabermetrics and may be leading the MVP race, and it’s never too early to be in that discussion.

It’s doubtful any ballplayer has been more burdened by great expectations than Harper.  Sports Illustrated put him on the cover when he was 16 and called him “The Chosen One.”  Fans and even, at times, his manager, Matt Williams, seemed disappointed in his first three seasons, in which he totaled 45 home runs.

Hey, folks, be patient.  At 22, McGwire was still in the minor leagues.

If Major League Baseball had a marketing department, it would capitalize on the affability of Harper, who connects with the sport’s smallest yet most critical demographic: the young.   

Unlike Trout, Harper is capable of saying something interesting.  During a recent pregame warmup, he saw fans trying to take his picture, so he ran over to them and said, “Toss me the phone and I’ll do it for you.”  He clicked the selfie, looking appropriately goofy, and returned the device.

Bryant, 6-5, 215 pounds, and like Harper born in Las Vegas, is the latest hope of the historically cursed Chicago Cubs.  Williams, the Nationals’ manager, said of Bryant: “For a large man his swing is exceptionally short, so he gets great leverage and power.”

The compact swing also means fewer slumps, higher batting average.  He has 7 homers and 2 triples in 47 games, while batting .282.  (.389 on-base).

Of these wunderkind, the most complete talent may be Pederson, front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year, left-handed leadoff batter who scouts are calling a “five-tool player.”  He recently homered in five straight games, and some launches exceeded 460 feet.

At 6-1, 215 pounds, he’s not as large as Trout, Harper and Bryant, but he’s faster.

He was the first Pacific Coast Leaguer in 80 years with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the same season.  He has 17 homers in 58 games for the Dodgers, and he’s on base 37% of the time.

So the doomsaying about baseball may be overdone.

And the talent pipeline will be primed in 3-4 years not just by RBI but by the maturing of children whose parents are discouraging football after learning more about concussion.  Pop Warner participation is dropping about 10 percent a year, giving baseball, with its superior safety record, the possibility of capturing more of the youth market.

I’d like to think that, for their own good, more of these linebacker types will choose baseball, where the biggest health risk – not to be minimized — is that they will chew tobacco.

In the 1990s, when baseball probably reached its zenith of total number of fans, Little League participation peaked at 3 million.  It since has declined to 2.4 million.

But regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen in the inner cities and outer cities, the major leagues will continue to import talent from the Caribbean.

On that front, raprochement with Cuba is another fortunate development.  Now Cuba’s top baseball prospects can fly to the U.S. instead of having to sail or row. 

Meanwhile, the erstwhile national pastime continues to draw increasingly from Asia.

Pittsburgh rookie Jung Ho Kang is the first position player to reach the majors from the Korean Baseball Organization.  He doesn’t have the power of Trout, Harper, Pedersen and Bryant, but he has nice pop for the positions he’s playing, shortstop and third base.

He has 3 homers, 8 doubles and 4 stolen bases in 42 games while batting .268.

Power ball will draw viewership, but if American baseball is going to develop more appeal with the under-50s, it must continue to quicken the pace of play.  Reduce pointless delays.  Whatever happened to carts for relief pitchers?

The die-hards – not to be confused with the dying — say the reformers are missing the larger point, that the quality of play in the majors has never been better, and rarely more wholesome.  Was there ever an era of more talent at all positions?  Dozens if not hundreds of potential baseball stars are coming to America, but most were born here.

Unfortunately, they remain faceless to the American public.  But that may be changing.  Bryce Harper is doing his part, and others may join him.  Let’s be optimistic.

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