On the night baseball’s regular season ended there was only one home run that anyone paid any attention to – Evan Longoria’s walk-off shot in the bottom of the 12th inning versus the Yankees that secured a wild-card playoff berth for the Tampa Bay Rays.
It is destined to be one of the game’s most remembered home runs, even if not a record like the one that the Yankees’ Roger Maris hit 50 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1961, to topple Babe Ruth’s long-held record of 60 homers.
As baseball harks back to that day, when a half-empty Yankee Stadium wtinessed Maris’s 61st homer, it also continues to mentally linger over Longoria’s unmajestic, but incredibly timed and superdramatic line drive that barely cleared the fence in left field corner of Tropicana Field. It was the final dagger plunged into the heart of the Boston Red Sox, who went from having baseball’s best record to ultimately losing a nine-game advantage in September in the wild-card race to Tampa, thus completing a virtually unparalleled collapse.
This not only placed a large exclamation mark at the end of the regular season, it totally eclipsed what was already a pretty overlooked home run race.
For those of you who weren’t following closely (which probably is the vast majority of people), Toronto’s Jose Bautista won his second straight home run crown, even if less impressively than a year ago when he had 54 homers. This year he fell off to 43, while runner-up Curtis Granderson of the Yankees had a career high 41. No one cracked 40 in the National League, where the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp took slugging honors with 39, one more than Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder had.
Bautista’s emergence as baseball’s premier long-ball hitter has caught baseball watchers off guard, much as Maris’s slugging exploits with the Yankees did in the early 1960s. In his previous five years in the majors, spent with the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Athletics, Maris had averaged a so-so 17 home runs per season. Then, in Yankee pinstripes, he turned absolutely Ruthian, hitting 39 and 61 homers in 1960 and ’61.
For Bautista, the transformation from ordinary to extraordinary was even more pronounced. His career high had been 16 home runs, in 2006, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but with Toronto last year he had a major-league-leading 54. He also set a single-season improvement record, jumping from 13 to 54 home runs in one fell swoop, a 41-home run swing that broke the previous mark of 38 set by Davey Johnson in 1973.
Whenever a player makes such a dramatic slugging improvement these days, it can raise suspicions in some minds about performance-enhancing drugs. But stricter testing seems to have flushed out the cheaters and no one in the game has raised questions about Bautista, A solid six-feet, 195 lbs, he chalks up his newfound hitting prowess to changing his batting mechanics, including learning to swing earlier.
He probably is helped somewhat by playing in a stadium with a retractable dome, the Rogers Centre, which is known to be a favorable environment for launching four-baggers. But by the same token, he has played for a Toronto team that has failed to make the playoffs since 1993 and doesn’t send a 'Murderer’s Row' of hitters to the plate.
One of many talented Dominicans in the majors, Bautista can be pleased with his 97 homers over the past two years. However, he might wish he could trade them for one shot like Longoria’s missile for the ages.