The latest rumor going around the major league baseball stadiums is that today’s baseballs are “juiced” and that’s why there is a record number of home runs hit during the first half of the 2019 season.

The loudest squawking is coming from our own Justin Verlander, the ace of the Houston Astros’ pitching staff and perhaps the best hurler is the major leagues, who knows first-hand of the problem because he has surrendered more homers (26) than any other MLB pitcher.

Verlander has plenty of allies to his theory, although Commissioner Rob Manfred adamantly insists they are the same baseballs that have not been intentionally doctored.

According to last week’s issue of USA Today, “the only difference is the drag of the ball has changed, resulting in the most long balls hit in baseball history in the first half and on pace to obliterate every home run record.”

Manfred commented, “The basic characteristics of the baseball, as measured by the independent scientists that we asked to do the study, provides no support for that. What there is support for is the drag of the baseball is a little less, and when you have less drag, it goes further.”

The article pointed out that Manfred pleaded to please stop with the conspiracy theories that MLB secretly ordered the balls to be juiced to fight back its declining attendance, with 18 teams drawing fewer fans at the All-Star break than a year ago.

MLB must decide what it wants to become, according to the article. “Does it want to remain this nightly edition of home run derby, with players swinging for the fences every time they step to the plate, with home runs, strikeouts and walks accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the action?

“Or does it want to return to the game it was designed to be, with teams manufacturing runs, managers employing hit-and-runs and players bunting and stealing bases?”

Players who retired a decade ago hardly recognize the game they once played. Tony Clark, the players’ union executive director said, “I think our game needs to figure out what it wants to be. It’s safe to say there’s a dramatic change in how the game is played. In don’t think there’s anything in our game that can’t be remedied by a little more baseball.”

Clark and the union met with Manfred and MLB lawyers before the All-Star game and informed them that they are interested in reopening talks at the halfway point of the collective bargaining agreement that expires after the 2021 season.

“We are interested in re-establishing a competitive environment,” Clark said. “We are interested in establishing meaningful free agency and players getting value as they are producing it. We are interested in getting the best players on the field. I would like the system to work the way it is intended to.”

MLB is presently testing several radical new changes in the independent Atlantic League, which includes a franchise in Sugar Land.

The one that has created the most comments states that batters may “steal” first base on any pitch not caught in flight, like a wild pitch.

 Regardless of the count on the hitter, if the ball goes to the backstop or elsewhere, the batter may take off for first base. If he’s safe, he remains on base, but if he attempts to run, he can be thrown out at first by the catcher’s throw.

Most of the comments are from managers and former players who claim “that’s not really baseball.”

The same is true for the plans to move the pitching mounds back two feet, the first change to the mound’s location in more than a century. They also won’t be relocated from the standard 60 feet, six inches until halfway through the season.

In addition to the mound changes, other rules being tested at the request of MLB include robot umpires calling balls and strikes, a three-batter minimum for relievers and the banning of infield shifts.

The changes, mostly aimed at speeding up the pace of play, will be tested in the Atlantic League for three years.

I doubt if any changes will actually be used by MLB, but I bet it makes Abner Doubleday turn over in his grave!!!

KWICKIES…I’m not a big tennis buff, but really was at the edge of my seat watching the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Championship match televised Sunday morning that proved to be very exciting. In what turned out to be the longest final in Wimbledon history (4 hours, 57 minutes) Serbian Novak Djokovic outlasted eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer by breaking a tie after the fifth set went to the tie-breaker. Ironically, Federer won more points (218-204) but Djokovic got them when it counted most.

Former St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several weeks ago and began chemotherapy Monday. The 83-year-old was 251-174 with a 2.91 ERA in 17 seasons from 1959-1975 and led the Cards to World Series titles in 1964 and 1967.

Former Port Neches-Groves star golfer Andrew Landry, who went into Sunday’s final round of the PGA Tour John Deere Classic tied for first place, shot 69 in his final round and finished third behind first-time winner Dylan Frittelli and runner-up Russell Henley. Landry cashed a check for $408,000 and earned entry to the British Open which begins tomorrow in Portrush, Northern Ireland.

A recent blockbuster NBA trade saw our Houston Rockets send fifth-wheel Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook, who is rejoining star running mate James Harden. Paul never seemed to fit in with the Rockets while Westbrook and Harden have played together and should put the Rockets into a championship mode.

The NFL Player’s Association is in favor of shortening the preseason exhibition games and expanding the regular season to 18 games, according to ESPN Sports Center. It will be tougher on rookies trying to make the 53-man roster but much easier on the veterans, who never liked training camp very well.

JUST BETWEEN US…The Houston Astros have been shopping really hard for a starting pitcher before the July 31 trading deadline, especially with their No. 4 starter Brad Peacock’s delay from the Injured List with some unexpected soreness two days after throwing a bullpen session before coming off the IL. Fire-balling reliever Josh James was a spot starter for Monday night’s game against the Angels in Anaheim. James, who was the winning pitcher Saturday against the Texas Rangers, uncorked some 100 mph pitches and had one clocked at 101.2 mph. After losing the first two games at Arlington, Houston scored 19 runs on 25 hits in Saturday (7-6) and Sunday’s (12-4) victories over the Texans. Jose Altuve appears to be 100 per cent healthy, going 8-for 19 in the four-game series with two homers (including a grand slam Sunday), six RBIs and seven runs scored. Altuve’s grand slam was a franchise record nine for this season and is four more than any other major league team has hit.