- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

If we've heard it once, we've heard it a thousand times: The hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball. Ted Williams says it. (Of course, he's biased.) Michael Jordan says it. (In the aftermath of his .202 season for the Class A Birmingham Barons.) Even Andre Agassi says it. (Though Andre was talking more about home runs.)

And for many years the statement might have been true. Hitting a baseball might have been the hardest thing to do in sports. Lately, though, I'm beginning to wonder if the situation hasn't reversed itself. I mean, couldn't you just as easily make the argument these days that pitching a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports?

I call your attention to a picture that ran on Page 4 of the Washington Times sports section Monday morning. Did you see it? It showed White Sox right-hander James Baldwin doing a deep knee bend to avoid being brained by a line drive off the bat of the Athletics' Ramon Hernandez. Here's Baldwin, in the process of pitching eight shutout innings, totally dominating the A's en route to his 13th win (second best in the league), and he nearly gets his hair parted down the middle on a hot shot through the box. If that doesn't sum up the plight of today's pitcher, I don't know what does.

The reason pitching has gotten so hard is that the Lords of Baseball have made it hard. They've juiced the baseball and brought in the fences and shrunk the strike zone and given creatine-created sluggers the run of the place. And what have they done to keep the hitters in check? What have they done to maintain the game's delicate balance? Not a blessed thing. Heck, they don't even enforce the rules against batters anymore. It was 7 and 1/2 years 7 and 1/2 years before an umpire bothered to tell Carl Everett, "Uh, buddy, you're going to have to move your front foot. It's out of the box."

If you still doubt me on this, take a sheet of paper and write down the names of all the really good hitters in the major leagues (guys, for instance, who are batting .300 or project to 40 homers or 100 RBI). When you're done, take another sheet of paper and write down the names of all the really good starting pitchers (earned-run average under 3.00, on pace to win 20 games, etc.). Which list is longer? The hitters, right? (Probably by a mile.) Well, if that's the case, how can anyone say hitting is harder than pitching?

As we approach the three-quarters pole of the season, there are just three starters in the majors with ERAs below 3.00: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown. In the American League, David Wells might be the only one who racks up 20 victories. Now look at the hitters. Carlos Delgado has a shot at 50 homers and 60 doubles. Darrin Erstad is on pace to break George Sisler's ancient record of 257 hits in a season. Nomar Garciaparra has been hovering around .400 (he was at .386 through Tuesday). Edgar Martinez is knocking in better than a run a game (107 in 104).

And that's just a handful of them. There's plenty more where they came from: Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Edmonds, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, Tony Batista, Jim Thome, David Justice. They could all be arrested for assault and battery on pitchers.

I'm not suggesting that hitting has become easy, but it definitely has become easier certainly easier than pitching. Note that when Jordan struck out as an outfielder, he didn't say, "Oh, that's OK. I'll just become a pitcher." He packed up his bags and slinked back to the NBA (before anyone could get a good look at his "forkball").

Finally, let's not forget that when many big league hitters are struggling, there's a treatment center they can visit to get themselves straightened out: Coors Field, home of the Rockies. A three- or four-day stay in Denver, with its thin air, has been known to rouse players from the deepest of slumps. And if a down-on-his-luck hitter is fortunate enough to be acquired by Colorado, it can change the course of his career. Witness Andres Galarraga, Ellis Burks and this year's mile-high mauler, former Oriole Jeffrey Hammonds. In his first seven seasons, Hammonds hit .268 with occasional power. This season he's batting .370 with 19 homers and 87 RBI.

Where, I ask, can a struggling pitcher go to get well? Answer: Nowhere. There used to be a few ballparks that were hospitable to hurlers the Astrodome, old Dodger Stadium, a few others but no longer. Every mistake pitchers make now gets deposited in the bullpen (where the rest of the staff is cowering, hoping the phone doesn't ring).

Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports? No way. Pitching a baseball is. That's why Mike Hampton, the Mets' lefty, is my idol. In the past two years, he has won 32 games and get this batted .310. How come he didn't make any of those Athletes of the Century lists? The man's a god.

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