From coast to coast, baseball fans are infatuated with home runs. Casual fans gawk at the distances balls travel. Fantasy leaguers scheme to acquire the big sluggers.
Not even the players are immune. Consider the succinctness of Oakland right fielder Matt Stairs - ''Singles (stink)'' - or the sex appeal coveted by Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine - ''Chicks dig the long ball,'' says Maddux in a memorable shoe commercial.
While Heather Locklear may be impressed by a Ruthian blast, there's mounting evidence that when it comes to winning, home runs are the most overrated statistic in baseball.
- Since 1985, no player who has hit more than 35 home runs has played on a World Series champion. Kansas City's Steve Balboni was the last with 36 home runs.
- Since 1980, no player who has led the league in home runs has played on a World Series champ. Hall-of-Famer Mike Schmidt was the last to do it with 48 homers for the Philadelphia Phillies.
- The Yankees have won three of the last four World Series and are favored again this year. New York's top home-run total on those teams? Bernie Williams' rather pedestrian 29 clouts in 1996.
- Since 1990, seven players have hit 50 home runs in a season including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Vaughn, Brady Anderson, Albert Belle and Cecil Fielder. Those seven combined to do it 12 times, but only Vaughn with the San Diego Padres in 1998 and Belle with the Indians in 1995 even made it to the World Series while Anderson's Baltimore Orioles won a playoff series in 1996. The others missed the postseason or lost in the first round.
- The last two teams to break the single-season home-run record - Baltimore with 257 in 1996 and Seattle with 264 the following season - each failed to make the World Series. Seattle also led the majors with 244 home runs last year but finished 79-83.
- The St. Louis Cardinals already have set a Major League-record for home runs in April with 50 - eight off the all-time mark for any month (Baltimore's 58 in May, 1987). This from the same St. Louis team that hasn't won more than 83 games since 1996, including last year's 75-86 disappointment.
- Dear-departed Tiger Stadium saw the most home runs fly out in the 1990s. No surprise Detroit hasn't made the postseason since 1987. Conversely, only 152 home runs left perceived hitter's paradise Fenway Park last season, lowest in the American League. Yet the Boston Red Sox made the playoffs for the second straight year, something no Boston team had done since 1915-16.
So the question persists: Does a reliance on home runs build a ''feast-or-famine'' offense likely to sputter against good pitching? Red Sox outfielder Carl Everett thinks so.
''Look at St. Louis. Everybody looks at McGwire (and his 246 home runs in the last four years),'' Everett told reporters in spring training. ''He's one guy. Put him on base. Let him get a single, St. Louis loses. You can't rely on one guy.''
The Yankees' solid fundamental offense (ranked in the top three in runs scored in each of the last three seasons but only eighth in American League home runs last year) offers more evidence. And what are fans to make of today's power surge when a self-described ''semi-retired slob'' like the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kevin Elster returns from a year's absence from baseball to slug three homers on opening day?
''On any given night, any team in the majors can score double figures in runs,'' said ESPN analyst and Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan. ''A lot of that is the home runs.''
Sure the new baseball is as hard and as tightly wound as the Titleist Tiger Woods plays. New stadiums keep getting smaller. Bulked-up batters wearing so much body armor stand on top of the plate, unconcerned about being hit by a pitch. No matter, pitchers won't throw inside anyway. Umpires won't call belt-high strikes. And expansion has watered down pitching drastically.
Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina thinks this is the way the owners want it.
''They want high-scoring games because they think that's what sells,'' Mussina told the Washington Times. ''But I think they're watering down the importance of a home run or even a run when there is so much offense.''
The Phillies' Curt Schilling agrees.
''Do fans want the game 14-10? I honestly don't believe they do,'' Schilling told ESPN.com. ''They want major league baseball. And that ain't major league baseball.''