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Home runs are a matter of simple arithmetic. No one needed a calculator to follow Mark McGwire down the stretch of his record-breaking 1998 season. The home runs just added up. What was gained could never be lost.
What Todd Helton is doing this summer is more complicated. Forget the pennant and wild-card races. The most exciting division in baseball is the computation that goes on after every at bat by Helton, the lefthanded-hitting Colorado Rockies first baseman. He's trying to become the ninth man since 1900 and the first in 59 years to hit .400. The mathematics of that pursuit are as daunting as the history.
"I got a whole point," Helton said in mock excitement. "I'll celebrate tonight."
His droll response was understandable, considering that Helton had entered the series at Three Rivers Stadium last Friday on a 10-game tear in which he'd smashed 15 hits in 39 at bats—and lost a point on his batting average. His 2-for-4 day on Saturday only meant that he would have to put together nine more consecutive games like it just to get to .400. Go figure.
On Sunday, Helton again went 2 for 4 in the Rockies' 9-2 defeat of the Pirates, leaving him at .394. Based on his rate of at bats per game through Sunday, Helton would need to hit .431 the rest of the way (50 for 116 over 32 games) to finish at .401. Then again, he's still at such a preposterously high level that he could go 0 for 116 and finish at .315, his career average entering this season.
Whether Helton hits .400 or not, he already has succeeded in proving how difficult the task is. Ascending to .400 this late in the season is like climbing Mount Everest: the closer to the summit, the more treacherous it is to advance, the easier it is to plummet. "What I've found out is that it is a little bit of a psychological barrier," Helton says. "I try not to stare at the scoreboard when I bat, but hitters usually know what they're hitting."
Through Sunday, Helton hadn't finished a day at .400 since June 10. Yet he was at .390 or better in 28 games since then, including 16 consecutive games at week's end. (The Coors Field scoreboard in Denver had him at .400 after he singled in his first at bat on Aug. 21, but that was only by rounding up from .3995, a practice that baseball's official statistician, the Elias Sports Bureau, doesn't apply for such a milestone.)
"When I don't get a hit now, being this close, it does get a little more discouraging," Helton says. "I hit line drives at the pitcher twice [last week] and was out both times. That hurts. But I knocked in a run with one of them. I also realize I can't guide the ball. I can't pull out a wedge and place the ball over the shortstop's head. All I can do is swing hard and hopefully get a hit."
The eight .400 hitters since 1900—including Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, who each accomplished the feat three times, and George Sisler, who did it twice—are all in the Hall of Fame except Joe Jackson. (He's not eligible for induction because of his ban from baseball related to the fixed 1919 World Series.) No one has hit .400 since Ted Williams batted .406 in '41 for the Boston Red Sox. Thus the milestone has been out of reach longer than were the single-season home run records of Babe Ruth (34 seasons) and Roger Maris (37).