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Shooting Stars
Tom Verducci
June 06, 1994
Can any of these streaking hitters stay hot enough to break a sacred baseball record?
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June 06, 1994

Shooting Stars

Can any of these streaking hitters stay hot enough to break a sacred baseball record?

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.424 Batting Average

Total at end of each month

April

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.-Oct.

Rogers Hornsby, 1924

.429

.404

.389

.412

.434

.424

Paul O'Neill, 1994

.448

.456*

Stats for current players through May 29

It is like wishing upon the evening's first star, this way we search early in a season to identify some bright light and then hope against history it will burst into a baseball supernova. It was Rod Carew in 1977 and '83 and Lenny Dykstra in '90 and John Olerud in '93 inspiring thoughts of a .400 hitter. It was Reggie Jackson in 1969 and Eric Davis in '87 and Kevin Mitchell in '89 making 62 home runs seem possible.

We put our faith in a handheld calculator. On a pace to...is our mantra. Big mistake. In baseball you cannot count on Texas Instruments any more than you can on Texas Rangers. Emboldened by mathematics, we ignore physics. The weight and spin of 162 games exerts a gravitational pull on the hottest of hitters and pitchers. Dykstra, for instance, who was batting .400 as late as June 11, was dragged steadily earthbound: .372 by the end of June, .350 by the end of July, .342 by the end of August, .325 by the end of the season. Splashdown. The rest of them, too—Carew (though his 1977 bid was more sustained), Olerud, Jackson, Davis and Mitchell—fizzled even before September began.

Not one third of the way through another season, here we go again. But this time it's not a one-man show. Whenever you look up, the heavens are full of possibilities. At week's end players in both leagues were (altogether now) on a pace to break major league records for batting average (Paul O'Neill of the New York Yankees), runs batted in (Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays), runs (Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox), doubles (Larry Walker of the Montreal Expos) and total bases (Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners), all of which were set at least 63 seasons ago by men long since dead. Moreover, Lee Smith of the Baltimore Orioles was setting his own pace toward obliterating the record for saves. Above all, the holy grail of hardball—the single-season home run record—seemed within Griffey's reach after existing virtually without challenge for 32 years. No one has come close to touching it since Roger Maris set it.

This season is beginning to sound like a broken record. But which one? Therein lies the beauty. With so many challenges to the game's hallmarks, wouldn't it be wonderful if just one of them was successful? It seems not a lot to ask. Couldn't just one player, this one time, defy gravity?

"There is a lot of truth to what's been said and written recently about our game having trouble getting people interested," Toronto designated hitter Paul Molitor says. "Baseball has done a very poor job, especially in selling individual players to the public. Now these guys are taking matters into their own hands. The individuals are selling themselves."

Within the language of baseball there is a dialect consisting entirely of numbers. No other sport can evoke so many eras or emotions simply with numbers: 61, .406, 755, 190, 2,130 among them. But lately, in a computer-driven world gone mad—Felix Fermin's batting average the last five years when he was behind in the count can be at every fan's fingertips (it's .232)—the numbers are turning to gibberish. There is as much authenticity in such "achievements" as playing in four decades or winning 100 games in both leagues as there is in cubic zirconia.

At an awards dinner in which Jose Canseco was feted for his unprecedented 40-40 season in 1988, Mickey Mantle, another honoree that night, returned to the rostrum after he appeared to have finished his remarks. "One more thing," Mantle said. "If I had known they were going to make such a big deal out of 40-40, I would have done it two or three times myself."

That's why the challenges to so many records this year are so stirring. The marks in question are genuine. And none of the chases is purer or figures to be more thrilling than Griffey's run at Roger Maris's record 61 home runs. "That record can't be gerrymandered very easily," says Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau. "I've always thought that short of a great pennant race, the one thing I'd like most to see is someone challenge Maris's record."

It has never happened—not as late as September, anyway. Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs stood for 33 years, though it was challenged immediately and frequently after he set it in 1927. In the next 11 years, four players hit at least 54 home runs. Maris's mark has stood for 32 years, and no one has come within eight home runs of it. (Given the controversy Maris's feat engendered, isn't that a kick in the asterisk?) The record has remained so out of reach that in its place, we have established what Hirdt calls "a surrogate record"—making a fuss whenever someone approaches 50 home runs, as we did shortly before Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers hit two homers on the last day of the '90 season to bring his total to 51.

A "Maris watch" has been set up countless times early in a season, but not at the end. In 1987, while with the Cincinnati Reds, Davis (now a Detroit Tiger) hit 19 home runs before June 1, a National League record. He finished with 37 dingers. Two years later Mitchell, then with the San Francisco Giants, had 31 home runs by the All-Star break. He hit just 16 more after that.

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