Originally created 07/31/98

The measure of a homer

For eight years, the job was merely an afterthought for John Vuch.

Estimating the length of home runs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, he surmises, encompassed less than one percent of his job in scoring games for Major League Baseball.

"And then Mark McGwire came along," said Vuch, who started charting home run distances when IBM instituted its "Tale of the Tape" program in 1988. "It's been a quantum leap since he arrived."

Until the last two seasons, it carried little fanfare and minimal attention in St. Louis. After all, the longest home run hit during Vuch's first season in charge belonged to Scott Terry, a Cardinals pitcher.

Now, the calls arrive from everywhere seeking information on the St. Louis slugger's home run prowess. From ESPN to metropolitan newspapers to local media outlets.

The hype has reached a fever pitch surrounding McGwire's Bunyanesque clouts this season. But where do these awesome distances come from?

After a home run has been struck, it takes a minute before the scoreboard at most parks displays the estimated distance the ball has flown.

Invariably you think, "How do they know how far the ball has traveled?"

Those guys in the pressbox aren't just flashing up numbers on the scoreboard that they think look good.

There is actually a rather scientific process that provides the estimate.

Distances are measured using a grid system matched to each ballpark's unique parameters and configurations.

"Most of the science part of the process was the application of the charting system, not in what we do in the pressbox," Vuch said.

Each home run is estimated based on how far the ball would have traveled from home plate on a horizontal line had it not been interrupted by the bleachers, facade, roof or whatever it may hit.

In order to create grids for each stadium, the ballpark is measured in three different types of home run flight paths (parabolic trajectories) -- line drives, long fly balls and towering fly balls. Each version has a different trajectory, so even if balls land in the same place, they may be estimated at different distances depending upon the arc of the ball.

When a home run is hit, team personnel determine the type of home run flight path and identify the quadrant on the grid in which the ball landed. The stadium-specific grid is then consulted to provide and estimate the distance the ball has traveled or would have traveled.

Some ballparks, like Atlanta's Turner Field, no longer use the three different types of flight paths, relying solely on the middle flight pattern to estimate each homer.

"We found that more often than not, we were using the regular fly ball to estimate the distances," said Jennifer Berger, the Braves Director of Audio and Video Communications. "We try to make it as equal as possible throughout the year, and that's the best way we've found to do it."

That's something else one should know. Home run distances aren't an official statistic -- never really have been. So there's no uniform way of determining the distances.

And right now, there's no one in charge of keeping the unofficial numbers.

IBM relinquished its "Tale of the Tape" promotion a few years ago, yielding the stats to MCI, which was the official sponsor until last year. Now there's no one in charge.

"It's really unfortunate," Berger said. "In the biggest year of the home run, no one is keeping tabulations on them."

The home run that really started all the hype was the one Mickey Mantle hit out of Washington's Griffith Stadium in 1952. It cleared the bleachers in left field and landed in a grassy field behind the stadium.

That's when Red Patterson, the Yankees' publicity man, had an idea. A wise old publicist who was originally a newspaperman and could recognize a story when he saw one, Patterson left the pressbox, found a boy holding the ball, asked where it landed and measured the distance the ball traveled.

He walked back into the pressbox and reportedly said, "That one, gentlemen, went 565 feet."

That's the one that brought Mantle such fame and began to fuel the public's fascination with the length of home runs.

The mantel of such distinguished power has fallen to McGwire, who is renowned as much for his multitude of homers as for their remarkable distances.

"I think that, because of the home run chase, distances have been perceived as being longer," Berger said. "Fan interest has grown with that."

McGwire holds the record in six ball parks for the longest home run. That doesn't include the 510-foot shot he launched during the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby earlier this month at Coors Field.

Only 13 of his first 45 home runs in '98 traveled fewer than 400 feet, while three surged longer than 500 feet.

On the facing of the upper deck in dead center field at Busch Stadium in St Louis -- 545 feet from home plate -- rests a billboard advertising the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And on that sign, the Cards have placed a 6-foot long Band-Aid to landmark one of McGwire's blasts.

There are only three current parks in which McGwire hasn't homered, and he's never played in Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field. That leaves Cinergy Field and Turner Field.

McGwire tries to reduce that number this weekend in Atlanta, and you can bet one of Berger's assistants will be primed to chart its distance.


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