BASEBALL'S BIGGEST BOPPERS are heading for home-run totals this season not seen since the days when Barry Bonds' waist was smaller in diameter than his biceps and Sammy Sosa was a light heavyweight.

Alex Rodriguez led the majors last season with 54 homers. Beluga-sized Prince Fielder led the National League with 50.

As the season blurs toward Labor Day, it appears nobody will hit 50. And maybe only a few hitters will wind up in the 40s. Ryan Howard, who had 34 going into last night's game, needed 11 homers last September-his most productive month-to finish with 47. That was 11 fewer than the 58 he slammed while driving in 149 runs on his way to a .313 average and the 2006 MVP award. A-Rod missed early-season time and sits at 28. The Prince has been a power pauper and is also at 28.

If the Leaning Tower of Whoosh hits 11 this September, the Phillies will be swilling champagne. Ryan probably would win the home-run title, particularly if he can pop a couple against the Mets here and during the four-game Cubs series in the Friendly Confines. If that goes down - totals similar to last season - nobody will give a rat's fanny if Howard's strikeouts exceed his own weight while his batting average weighs less than Pat Burrell. Champagne celebrations have an amnesic effect on the sporting populace.

You can draw a timeline through the Juiceball Years by the number of ordinary hitters who banged 50 or more, a total once reserved for the Hall of Fame elite. Hank Aaron spent his long career in homer-friendly ballparks in Atlanta and Milwaukee and never hit more than 47 in a season. It was an event when Willie Mays hit 52 in 1965 in wind-raked Candlestick Park because he had to become an opposite-field hitter to defeat the nightly gales that blew from left to right. You didn't need a gauge to learn which way the wind was blowing. The hot-dog wrappers plastered against the outfield cyclone fence were a handy anemometer. Had the Boys from BALCO been around before the Giants moved to the Embarcadero, Bonds might have ridden that wind to a 100 season. By the way, Barry asked a federal judge the other day to drop most of the charges against him in his perjury trial.

The Reds' scary powerful George Foster banged 52 homers in 1977. And when Phils manager Danny Ozark accused George of using a corked bat, Joe Morgan chirped, "George corks his arms, not his bat."

The first alarm of Juiceball Generation went off like an air-raid siren signaling that something was rotten in Maryland. In 1995, Orioles centerfielder Brady Anderson hit 16 homers and drove in 64 runs, not bad for a player listed at 6-1 and 170 pounds. A year later, a much thicker Anderson hit 50 homers and drove in 110 runs. That was the equivalent of a 4:15 miler running a 3:35. A year later, Brady was back down to 18 homers and 73 RBI. Anderson finished with 210 homers, having hit nearly 25 percent of them in just one season of his 15-season career. That wasn't a smoking gun, it was a flaming cruise missile.

But the union kept blocking anything close to meaningful testing, not that MLB pushed for it very hard after 1998, the year Mark McGwire hit 70 and Sosa, by then a 230-pound heavyweight, chased him with 66. The building wow factor that engulfed the second half of that season saved a game still reeling from the 1994 strike, World Series cancelation and the 1995 sham of spring training conducted for more than 1,000 replacement players. Or so we were told. Too many of us went along with the grand deception shamelessly tossed to the public while players continued to inflate their bodies like so many Thanksgiving parade floats. By the time Bonds raised the Juice Bar to 73, the underground lab rats were not only doling out human-growth hormones, but were masking it from testers. Take the cream, then the clear and, presto, you were clean as the inside of a test tube.

The Phillies were on pace to break the team single-season home-run record they established in 2006, but their big-fly production has tailed off dramatically since they fell into a group funk that for more than a month has made an event of each run scored.

They took 174 homers against the Mets last night after a mildly surprising four-game wipeout of the underachieving Dodgers. But hitting 43 in the remaining 30 games probably won't happen. I'd settle for 25 homers, and split the remaining 72 total bases into clutch doubles and singles.

Home runs are still flying out of ballparks. But the usual suspects, the guys annually at the top of the longball charts, are nowhere near their peak years.

Take what you want from the power shortage in the engine rooms around baseball.

Hey, this testing really works.

Or, these damn shattering maple bats have really cut down the home runs. *

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