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Morris: Knock on wood

On the surface, Justin Smoak’s career home-run record at South Carolina looks beyond reproach. He broke Hank Small’s record in fewer games and fewer at-bats.

When one looks under the hood, though, a case could be made that Small’s home-run total was a greater achievement. Small hit 48 home runs in what is considered college baseball’s dead-bat era, when long balls were as scarce as cool summer breezes in Columbia. Smoak’s total of 52 has come during the aluminum-bat era, when home runs are as frequent as airline flyer miles.

Small’s home-run total is quite remarkable. So, too, is Smoak’s. So before delving into each player’s statistics and siding with one, perhaps it is best to view Small as the Babe Ruth of USC baseball and Smoak as the Hank Aaron. That way, neither one’s accomplishments can be perceived as any kind of slight.

Let’s approach this puzzle by making a case for each as the greater accomplishment, then see if we can draw a conclusion. For simplicity’s sake, let’s also refer to them as the Small Era and the Smoak Era of college baseball.

Small was USC’s first home-run hitter. In one nine-year period leading up to Small’s career, USC hit 42 home runs ... as a team. Small started slow, hitting four in 1972, then eight in 1973, the season that signaled the end of college baseball as we knew it.

The aluminum bat was used for the first time in 1974 nationally, although USC did not use it that season. A year later, USC and Small went aluminum. Small hit 17 “dingers” with a wood bat in 1974 and 19 “pingers” with aluminum in 1975.

Interestingly, the national average for home runs in a game did not vary much during the Small Era. From 1972 to 1975, it went from 0.42 home runs per game to 0.42 to 0.49 to 0.50. The only explanation for this is that not every college team switched to aluminum bats at the onset of the 1974 season. How else do you explain that the 1974 per-game national average is the lowest since the switch to aluminum bats?

USC’s reluctant switch to aluminum bats probably was as good an example of any in the country. Technology for aluminum bats was in its infancy in 1974, and Small recalls his father bringing six of the new bats to him before a USC game that season at Clemson. Small dented four in batting practice and deemed wood bats to be better suited for baseball.

A year later, USC received a better shipment of aluminum bats, although Small remembers the entire team using the same single bat most of the season. Aluminum or wood, the point is that during the Small Era, home runs were not a big part of the game. Also, the surge in home runs did not occur nationally until 1976, so Small essentially used a wood bat all four seasons.

Southern California’s Fred Lynn was the national home run leader in 1972 — Small’s freshman season — with 14. By comparison, Pete Incaviglia of Oklahoma State holds the single-season home run record with 48 in 1985.

As a team, Santa Clara led the nation with 51 home runs in 1972. By comparison, USC was the2007 leader with 113.

“I don’t want to take anything away from what (Smoak’s) done,” says Small, who managed one at-bat in the major leagues and now is retired in Atlanta. “I just think college baseball is so much more hitting than it is pitching today. College now is a hitting game.”

A compelling argument for Small is that he won a home-run hitting contest at USC before the 1975 season. The other two contestants were Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees and John Milner of the New York Mets. All used wood bats. Small won by hitting the only home run.

Another argument for the Small Era is that his record stood for 33 years. With bigger and stronger players today, it is unlikely Smoak’s record will stand that long unless he puts it out of sight by the end of this season.

As we have come to realize with Smoak, anything is possible. He is a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate and to all fields. In an era when routine fly balls often carry out of the ball park, Smoak’s home runs usually are rockets that still are climbing by the team they reach the fence.

“I was trying to draw a comparison, and I certainly think what Hank Small did was impressive,” USC coach Ray Tanner says. “Then I think about how Justin’s done it in three years with a bull’s-eye on his back from the day he walked on campus.”

Smoak’s career has been marked by consistency. While it took Small a couple of seasons to warm up, Smoak bolted out of the gate as a freshman when he hit 17 home runs. He followed that with 22 a season ago and has 13 this season.

For myriad reasons, few USC home-run hitters have sustained their power over more than two years. It seems most of USC’s recent power hitters were junior-college transfers and thus played only two seasons.

Joe Datin transferred from Middle Georgia and hit a school-record 23 home runs in 1985 before injuries left him with nine home runs the next season. Yaron Peters, a transfer from Cuesta (Calif.) Community College, hit two home runs as a junior and a school-record 29 as a senior. Then there was Steve Pearce, an Indian River (Fla.) Community College transfer, who hit 21 home runs each in 2004 and 2005.

Smoak has done it over three seasons and done it against stiff competition. USC played as an independent throughout the Small Era, and it is more likely that Smoak has faced more challenging pitching in the SEC. USC during the Small Era filled its schedule with the likes of Lynchburg Baptist and Frostburg State, while the Smoak Era teams are assured of seeing quality pitching just about every weekend.

If there was any doubt about Smoak being able to hit for power with a wood bat, it was erased when he played in the summer Cape Cod Baseball League between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Smoak hit 11 home runs in a 42-game season.

Finally, there are the numbers. By the time he matched Small’s career total of 48, Smoak had hit a home run every 13 at-bats. Small hit one every 14 at-bats. That seems minuscule, until you multiply it over the course of a 56-game college season and find that Smoak would hit four more home runs each season — or 12 over his three-year career.

In the end, it is difficult to side with one player. Their careers are as similar as the jersey No. 12 both wore at USC. Maybe it is because I tend to side with the pioneer or old-timer in any argument like this. Whatever the reason, I’m going with Small as having the more remarkable achievement, although I reserve the right to change my mind as Smoak continues to add to his total.