Figures, they say, don't lie, though liars may figure. Anyway, if major league baseball's home run binge continues at its present pace, there could be more than 4,600 of those Rabbit Rhapsodies recorded before the end of the season. Or as New York Yankees shortstop Wayne Tolleson told Sports Illustrated: ``When Wayne Tolleson hits a home run to the opposite field, something's wrong!'' Al Downing, who won 20 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1971 and now works as one of the team's cable TV broadcasters, offers the first explanation I've heard that didn't start off by identifying this year's ball as livelier. Not that Al hasn't seen a few rockets launched by hitters no bigger than a bag of potato chips, but just that the minds of ex-pitchers tend to work differently from those of other people. ``The way things are today, most young pitchers are rushed up to the big leagues before they have had a chance to learn their craft,'' Downing said. ``They are told to keep the hitter off balance by moving the ball around with something on it. Oh, they move it around all right. The problem is they haven't learned how to do this yet without the pitch staying in the strike zone, where it can be reached.
``Look at what so often happens when a rookie or an inexperienced pitcher has to face a guy with power. His manager tells him to throw up and in, accepted baseball strategy. If the ball is in deep enough against a hitter like Dave Kingman, for example, he's either going to foul it off or break his bat.
``But if the pitch remains in the strike zone, which usually happens with pitchers who haven't stayed in the minors long enough to get all the fundamentals, a hitter like Kingman is going to jerk it out of the park.
``The point is, you don't get hitters out in this league throwing strikes on the inside of the plate. Until the kid pitchers we have up here now get that through their heads, that rash of home runs is probably going to continue.''
Somehow the conversation swung around to southpaw Tommy John, who has played on five different major league teams and at age 44 is having the kind of year with the Yankees (10-3) usually found only in novels.
``The thing about Tommy John is that he has always done everything backwards and gotten away with it,'' Downing explained. ``Most pitchers don't win unless they stay ahead in the count. It's only common sense because then the hitter is forced to swing at whatever the pitcher wants to throw, instead of having the luxury of waiting for something he likes.
``But even though John is notorious for letting batters get ahead of him, he'll invariably turn a 3-1 count into a routine ground out with a pitch that was obviously off the plate.
``I think this happens because Tommy always looks so easy to hit that most batters can't resist what seems like a wonderful opportunity. Another thing in John's favor is that he throws the ball so close to the ground that it's difficult to drive. This year, of course, he's also with a very good team.'' Elsewhere in the major leagues
In a little more than three months, Cleveland has gone from one of the most ballyhooed teams in the American League East to one that may not even play .500 ball. Greasing the Indians' totem pole has been a pitching staff with the worst earned-run average in baseball. This is a team that will have to trade some of its hitting strength during the off-season for at least two proven starters if it hopes to get on the winning trail.
Wade Boggs, once a leadoff man but now batting third for Boston, has a chance to log as many home runs (32) this season as he did in his first five years in the American League. That is, if he continues at his present pace. Explanation: Boggs, who has always hit a great many balls out of the park in batting practice but never more than eight homers in a season, has lengthened his swing just enough to increase his power by maybe 40 feet.
When I talked with manager Cal Ripken Sr. of the Baltimore Orioles in May about the chances of his son Billy making the team, he said he thought Billy would need another season in the minors to get ready for big league pitching. However, since being recalled by the Orioles in early July to play second base, Billy has not only hit well but formed a strong double-play combination with his brother Cal Jr., the team's shortstop.