The home run era keeps going... going...

Despite strict testing for steroids, baseballs are still soaring out of the ballpark.

The home run is back. Just a few months ago, sparked by a story in Sports Illustrated, speculation was rife that the long-ball era was over. The reason: a strict testing policy was forcing players to abandon steroids.

But at mid-season, the home run count is back to near-normal levels. In the run-up to Tuesday's All-Star Game in Detroit, Major League Baseball will pay homage to the long ball with Monday night's home run derby. Sluggers including home run leader Andruw Jones, Boston designated hitter David Ortiz, and Texas first baseman Mark Teixeira will all be swinging for the fences.

"There was a while this year where it looked like the number of home runs might take a sharp decline," says Steve Hirdt, Elias Sports Bureau executive vice president. "I think the decline has been pretty modest, but a decline nonetheless."

For a brief time this season, the average number of home runs hit per game fell below two. That was unusual. Since 1994, there has never been a season when the average fell below two. Then warmer weather set in this year and hitters began to pick up the pace. Through June 30, an average of 2.06 home runs were hit per game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Major League Baseball's official statistician.

That's still down from last year's average of 2.25. Still, baseball experts are almost unanimous in their opinion that the warmer months of July and August will nudge home run totals upward. No hitter is threatening to reach the gargantuan numbers posted in recent seasons by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa, but about the same number of players are, for example, likely to exceed the 40-home run plateau.

Analysts differ over why there has been a slight decline in overall home run production compared with recent seasons. They also disagree on how much steroids affected the past homer-happy decade as well as whether improved pitching and tighter testing will have an impact beyond 2005.

"There is no evidence of a substantial reduction in home run levels," says Bill James, a Boston Red Sox consultant and well-known master of baseball data. "Which, I confidently expect, will lead to headlines all over the nation: 'Steroid scandal turns out to be much ado about nothing.' "

The home run wave began to wash over the game in 1994, spurred in part by expansion, less pitching depth, smaller parks, stronger hitters and, yes, steroids, some experts say. Before then, the formula for winning in baseball revolved around pitching and defense.

Those days may be returning soon, says Steve Stone, an ESPN analyst and former Cy Young Award winner. He cites the Chicago White Sox, the club with the best record in baseball this year. The White Sox boast three pitchers - Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, and Freddy Garcia - who reside in the top for victories among American League starters.

"I think maybe the game is going to swing back," Mr. Stone says. "It's cyclical. It appears some teams will emulate the transformation that [general manager] Kenny Williams employed with the Chicago White Sox: have young pitchers and get guys who can catch the ball."

For years, the Atlanta Braves have followed a similar formula, with a rotating cast of players. With star pitchers such as soon-to-return Curt Schilling (Red Sox) and recently reactivated Chicago Cubs Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the mend, hitters face more challenging at-bats in the months ahead.

Even so, longtime observers lament the lack of depth in most pitching rotations.

"There are rising stars like Dontrelle Willis [of the Florida Marlins] and [Minnesota Twins pitcher] Johan Santana, but overall pitching is still a problem in the big leagues," says Tim McCarver, a Fox analyst and former veteran catcher. "I'm not big on pitch counts and I'm bigger on going deeper in the game than they do."

Help, perhaps, is on the way. Mr. Hirdt, of the Elias Sports Bureau, notes an uptick in complete games thrown this season. Through June 30, pitchers threw all nine innings once every 23 starts, a noticeable gain from the one-in-37 pace at the same time in 2004.

Mr. McCarver believes it will take more than steroids testing and a higher rate of complete games to restore the balance between offense and defense in baseball. He suggests raising the pitcher's mound by five inches, restoring its height to 15 inches. The mound was lowered to 10 inches after the 1968 season, when dominant pitching performances by Bob Gibson (1.12 ERA), Luis Tiant (1.60 ERA) and Denny McClain (31 wins) spurred baseball executives to give hitters a better vantage point.

"I've been suggesting raising the mound for years, but nobody seems to listen," he says.

But Mr. James, the Red Sox consultant, dismisses the notion as "ham-fisted, heavy-handed tinkering. There are a million ways to dramatically reduce home runs without doing anything like that."

Beyond pitching debates, longtime observers cite the recent ballpark- construction boom as another factor for the home run derbies taking place at many major league stadiums.

Since 1994, 14 of the 30 franchises have moved into new, often cozier homes. Many analysts point to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia as a prime example. Many pitchers, including Atlanta Braves veteran John Smoltz, compare it to Coors Field in Denver, renowned for its high-scoring contests. More new parks - also likely to be homer-friendly - are slated for St. Louis and Washington.

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