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Blame pitching for HR derby

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Cory Snyder warmed quickly to the subject of home runs, which in his case wasn't difficult. The guy never saw a fastball he didn't like, never met an outfield fence he didn't think he could clear.

That's why he had strong opinions on why Major League Baseball in 2000 looks a lot like Home Run Derby.

"Hitter-friendly ballparks?" said Snyder, who moved from California to Mapleton two years ago. "You tell me. If you're going to watch a game, what do you want to see? Most fans go there to see home runs. They want to see the big ball. In basketball they want to see 3-pointers, not the guy who shoots free throws or layups. That's the way baseball is. I'd rather watch Mark McGwire any day than Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs. Tony's a great hitter, one of the best ever, but he's not going to bring in the fans. Sammy Sosa brings in the fans. It comes down to that."

Baseball is enjoying a nice revival. It's not the golden era, but in recent years the home run records have been falling rapidly — and fans are eating it up. Pitchers, well, they're not quite as excited. Their job is on the endangered list, like tobacco tester or male chauvinist pig. Batters hit a record 931 homers in April. McGwire's 70 home runs two summers ago didn't just beat Roger Maris' record, they obliterated it. He reached 20 this year faster than any other player.

On Sunday, six grand slams were registered in the major leagues, shattering a record set just a year earlier. Wednesday, the St. Louis Cardinals hit back-to-back homers for the 13th time this year, two shy of the National League record, set in 1956.

Concerned that baseballs are "juiced," MLB officials went so far as to visit the factory in Costa Rica. But like a Gaylord Perry spitball, the evidence just wasn't there.

Snyder is, in legal terms, as an expert witness on home runs. He hit 149 of them in a nine-year big league career that included stops in Cleveland, Chicago (White Sox), San Francisco and Los Angeles. He broke into the major leagues in 1986 with the Indians, registering 24 home runs, followed by seasons of 33 and 26.

Hitting "the big ball" was his calling card. At BYU — where the combination of short fences, high altitude and aluminum bats made for a hitter's paradise and a pitcher's Devil's Island — Snyder took full advantage. He remains the all-time home runs (73) and batting average (.432) leader.

Not a person you wanted to hang a curve on.

He allows that numerous new ballparks have been built recently with home runs in mind. Still, there are other reasons for the surge in homers, such as raw talent, weight training programs and off-season conditioning.

His main theory, though, is that the sharp rise in home runs isn't due to food supplements, muscles or even talent, as much as the dearth of qualified pitchers. "It's one thing if you have a 95-mile-an-hour fastball," he said, "but I see pitchers struggling more. I think they need to bring them up when they're ready, not because they paid them a whole bunch of money and they're trying to show the player is worth it."

The scarcity of mature pitchers is like the scarcity of hook-shooters in basketball. Magic Johnson successfully used it, as did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now Arvydas Sabonis is virtually the only player in the NBA who regularly uses it. "Nobody wants to put five or six hours a day to learn how to do it right," said Snyder.

Home runs, Snyder concludes, are often the product of a pitcher's mistake. With inexperienced pitchers filling the rosters, they tend to make one, two or even three mistakes per batter, and good hitters show no mercy. Young pitchers facing McGwire will usually try to overthrow.

One moment the pitcher is making a mental mistake, the next moment someone 450 feet away has a souvenir.

"Instead of doing like (Greg) Maddux and saying, 'I'm going to pitch my game,' they are saying, 'I've gotta strike this guy out,' " said Snyder. "He presses a little bit, and that's that."

Outta there.

Where the rest of the baseballs have gone to roost.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com