Milestones will be reached in 2011 but DiMaggio's mark is safe
Derek Jeter is 74 hits from 3,000; Mariano Rivera could set a new saves record
Joe DiMaggio set a new record with a 56-game hitting streak in 1941
No player has had a hitting streak longer than 44 games since DiMaggio's mark
This much we can count on in the 2011 baseball season -- the passing of a few good milestones, the further elevation of a few good men. Sometime in early June, if his past is any kind of prologue, shortstop Derek Jeter will stroke his 3,000th career hit, and become (and this is pretty crazy when you think about it) the first player in the gilded, 100-plus-year history of the Yankees to reach that figure. In September, Jeter's teammate, Mariano Rivera, could save his 43rd game of the season (why not? he had 44 saves in 2009) and pass Trevor Hoffman as the major leagues' all-time saves leader.
The Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki seems a lock to get 200 hits in 2011 (he averages 224 a year), which would make him the first player ever to get that many in 11 different seasons. In Tampa Bay, Manny Ramirez just might bump up against an Iron Horse. If Manny can just be Manny three more times -- meaning the bases-clearing slugger Manny, not the cell-phone-in-the-outfield Manny -- he could pass Lou Gehrig's audacious standard of 23 career grand slams.
And anywhere from about Memorial Day, when teams will play their 57th games of the year, to the end of the season, there is a chance that we will see someone surpass Joe DiMaggio's mark of getting a hit in 56 consecutive games. Just as there is a chance that we may see lightning strike the pitcher's mound at, say, Wrigley Field -- twice. Or we may see a flock of flying elephants descend somewhere during the seventh-inning stretch.
The reason why DiMaggio's record is so compelling is not because of its statistical improbability or its long-lastingness, but rather because of the time in which it took place (America's last summer of innocence, 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor). And the way that the hitting streak captivated the country and worked its way into countless lives (from FDR's to Joey's in Harlem to Aunt Ida's in Illinois). And because of the way that the streak so singularly transformed DiMaggio himself, and the toll that it exacted upon him and his pregnant wife (no, not THAT wife).
Yet beyond the layers of backstory, the record of 56 remains alive and thriving on the eve of its 70th birthday, a number unlike any other in the sport. It's tantalizing, for one thing. It kind of seems doable. Nobody expects, say, a pitcher to win 41 games in a season, Jack Chesbro's modern-day record. Pitchers don't even start 41 games in a season. But 56? All you have to do is go 1 for 4 every day. Hit .250. It's just as likely to happen in 2011 as it was in 1941.
"Really?" people have said to me "But the game has changed. It's harder to have a hitting streak nowadays. Hitters are always facing a fresh arm out of the bullpen."
Back then starters often stayed in the game long after they'd tired, and so, the thinking goes, it was easier for a hitter to keep a streak alive.
Well, that seems like it makes sense. Only there's no evidence to support it at all. Batting averages today -- National League averages have ranged from .259 to .266 over the past five seasons -- are about the same as the .262 across the major leagues in 1941. (I'm using today's NL average because there's no designated hitter, just as there wasn't in 1941). In other words, closers and lefty specialists not withstanding, base hits are no less common.
If anything, it appears to be easier to reel off a long hitting streak today than it was decades ago. There have been 44 hitting streaks of 30 games or longer in the 135 years of the major leagues and 12 of them, or 27 percent, have occurred since 1997. The Phillies had three players in camp this spring who have had streaks of 35 or more games -- Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Luis Castillo. No other team in big league history has even had two.
Of course 35 is a long way away from 56. And so is 44, which is as close as anyone has ever gotten to DiMaggio's record. No single season or career record stands so far beyond its second-best.
So keep your eye on Jeter's run at 3,000 in 2011, and follow Ichiro too. This could also be the year that Alex Rodriguez passes Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. (He is 47 away.) And then look to see if lightning will strike twice or if elephants will alight. It has to happen sometime. Right?
Kostya Kennedy is a Senior Editor at Sports Illustrated and the author of 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number In Sports. To purchase the book, click here.