Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Made To Be Broken


The saying goes that records are made to be broken. ESPN had a poll today about the best baseball records. There are times when I think that baseball was created just so that we would have a million different numbers to rehash. Of course any real baseball fan will tell you that the numbers make the game fun. It allows you to compare players across the decades. They start countless and ultimately futile arguments between friends and foes alike. Anyway, the folks at ESPN decided that Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak is the ultimate baseball record. I happen to disagree.

I'm not saying that Joe's streak wasn't a great accomplishment, but the best of all time? I don't think it's even close. A hitting streak is a vastly over rated statistic. Why should we celebrate someone getting one hit a game. Isn't the goal to get as many hits as possible in a game? Over the same 56 period that Joe Dimaggio was on his hitting streak, Ted Williams had a higher batting average, drove in more runs and hit more home runs than Joe. So why exactly is the hitting streak the most celebrated record in the game? Obviously Joe played in New York and the Yankees won all the time and he was the most famous player in the game. If a player for the St. Louis Browns had hit in 56 straight, it wouldn't be the most famous record in the game. And I'm absolutely positive that it would not top this list. Joe Dimaggio, who was a great player, has managed to become mythical since his retirement. In the Sixties, he was voted the greatest living ballplayer in a poll by the American public. Amazingly, Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Musial, and Williams were all alive and well at the time. Dimaggio took the title seriously and would not show up to old timers day at Yankee stadium unless he was introduced last and introduced as "the greatest living ball player". He wasn't and in fact at no point during his lifetime was he the greatest living ball player. Hitting streaks are fine but as far as records go, but I'll take the consecutive home run streak (which is 8 games in a row), any day of the week.

Cal Ripken's streak is another one that doesn't impress me. There were lots of times when he played with injuries and hurt his team instead of taking a day or days off. There were times when he was in a slump and hurting his team but he refused to take a day off. Let's get this straight, Cal Ripken was no Lou Gehrig. Gehrig was as dynamic an offensive force as the game has ever seen. Ripken could have and by all rights should have taken time off, but "the streak" became everything to him. He even sacrificed the good of the team for his almighty streak. People like to look at "the streak" as the ultimate act of a great teammate, but for the most part, even great teammates need a rest sometimes and trust me Ripken could have used a few.

So now that I've ripped two of the most sacred "records" in baseball, it's time to get to some that deserve more attention. First off there's Hack Wilson and his 191 RBI's in one season. It's an amazing record that has stood much longer than Ruth's home run record, but it simply gets no press. Even knowledgeable baseball fans would be hard pressed to come up with the holder of the record. It's a shame really. If he played in NY, 191 would actually mean something.

There are certain single season feats that I don't think will happen again anytime soon. A pitcher winning 30 games seems unlikely given the current reliance on the 5 man rotation. A pitcher would have almost no margin for error to reach that number. In fact most starting pitchers don't end up with 30 decisions, much less 30 wins. The last time it happened was 1968 and the mound was lowered after that. Unless there's a radical shift in pitching strategy, I think the 30 game winner is lost to history.

Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in one season as a member of the Oakland A's. Last year the A's stole 31 as a team. Once again, as with pitching strategy, the game has changed and the stolen base is no longer of the importance that it used be. With home runs flying out the park at a record pace, the stolen base seems like an unnecessary risk. Why would you want to have a runner thrown out trying to steal when he can simply jog around the bases after a home run? It doesn't make sense. No one has come within spitting distance of Rickey since the 80's and it doesn't look like things will change anytime soon. His career record of 1,406 is also very safe. The closest active player is a little over 1/3 of the way there and he's already 38 years old. You can go to sleep in peace, Rickey. No one is breaking your records for a long, long time.

Ted Williams hit .406 in the same year that Joe Dimaggio hit in 56 straight and I certainly think that it was the more impressive feat. It was the last time that a hitter has reached the magical .400 level. George Brett, Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn all came up short in their attempt. Tony was beaten by the strike of '94. In fact in the 162 games from the start of '94 to the middle of '95 he did in fact hit .400, but it doesn't count as a .400 season. The fact that people have come close leads me to believe that there will be a .400 hitter again. It's just a matter of time and circumstance. Colorado seems as likely a place as any for that to happen. In fact, I'll make a prediction that the next .400 hitter will play for the Rockies. I don't know who that might be, but check back in a few years.

I think the most impressive records are Pete Rose's all time hits record and Nolan Ryan's all time strikeout record. They both seem practically untouchable to me. Derek Jeter at his current rate of production would have to play until he was 44 to catch Pete Rose. Pete had the luxury of being his own manager for the last couple of years of his playing career, so he could put himself in the lineup every day. First of all, today's players make so much money that I can't imagine someone being motivated enough to stick around the break the record and the circumstances would have to be perfect for it to happen. A player would have to break into the majors at 19 or 20 and remain relatively injury free and remarkably productive for about 22 years. The same could be said of Nolan Ryan's all time strikeout record. Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, who are fair strikeout pitchers themselves, aren't within 1,200 of Ryan's total. Ryan leads second place (Clemens) by a remarkable 22%. That would equate to Hank Aaron having about 900 home runs if Bonds trailed him by the same percentage. Once again it would take a pitcher averaging nearly 300 strikeouts a year for about 20 years. Seemingly impossible to reach.

The point is though, that records are made to be broken, so hopefully there are players out there or players yet to born who will dream the impossible dream and catch them. I can't say that the odds are very good, but then again the odds weren't very good that anyone would ever catch Ty Cobb.

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