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The long, tortuous road from April to October is so strewn with milestones this year that, if they are all passed, the 1985 season will have achieved a special place in baseball history. Consider the possibilities. Cincinnati's Pete Rose, as anyone who peeks at a sports page must know, needs 95 hits to break a record regarded for six decades as unsurpassable: Ty Cobb's 4,191 career hits. Rose's own timetable has him passing Cobb in late August. Meanwhile, Houston's Nolan Ryan and Philadelphia's Steve Carlton each should strike out his 4,000th batter, another feat of epic proportions.
On a lesser plateau, but certainly no hillock, California's Rod Carew should become the 16th player in history to achieve 3,000 hits. Later on, Chicago's Tom Seaver (288 wins) or New York's Phil Niekro (284) or even Oakland's Don Sutton (280) just might join the exclusive company of those pitchers (16 to date) who have won 300 games or more. The 300 mark has never been passed by three pitchers in one year and only once, in 1890, have two done it.
In addition, New York's Rickey Henderson should steal his 500th base (he needs seven more) and shortly after move into the Top 10 among modern players on that list. California's Reggie Jackson will certainly pad his career strikeout record of 2,247 and almost certainly get the nine home runs he needs to pass Mel Ott's 511, thus earning himself a place in that Top 10. With all of these milestones there for the taking, more games should be stopped this year for ball or base presentation ceremonies than by rain or bean brawls, a milestone in itself.
These facts aren't lost on today's players, who, deep down, have an abiding concern for the numbers they hang up. In fact, Sutton probably would have retired this year if he hadn't had a reasonable shot at 300 wins. And Seaver concedes that the prospect of 300 gives him extra incentive. "I think players today focus more on records than they once did," says Steve Garvey, the collar-ad Padre first baseman and future immortal. Angels pitcher Tommy John seconds the motion. "Sure, the achievements are important," says John, who has pitched for 21 years and won 255 games. "A lot of people have played this game. It's like a ticket into the Hall of Fame."
It is no small tribute to the players closing in on superstats that they have been so good for so long. All are fast approaching or past 40 except Henderson, who is 26. As they blithely challenge records etched, it was thought, in stone by the game's immortals, a possibly blasphemous question arises: Are they truly more talented and durable than past greats? Remarkable as it may seem, if Rose succeeds in his quest, the career records of Babe Ruth for homers, Walter Johnson for strikeouts and Cobb for hits will all have fallen within the past dozen years. Also, if Seaver, Niekro and Sutton reach 300 wins this season, they will be the third, fourth and fifth pitchers to do so in the last four years. How come?
There is no question that the modern ballplayer has access to much improved training procedures and medical treatment. The vastly higher wages players now receive have made their bodies such priceless commodities that the smart ones, at least, stay in shape the year round and report to spring training lean and fit. "It used to be that if you hit age 32, teams started to consider you old," says John, who is 41. "Now at that age, you're just hitting your stride."
John's career was rescued by a miracle of surgery—the replacement of a ligament in the left elbow with a tendon from the right wrist, a medical marvel not available to the game's ancients. Had such techniques been developed, the lamentably brief pitching careers of such sore-arm sufferers as Smokey Joe Wood and Dizzy Dean might well have lasted as long as John's. In Wood's time, a rotator cuff was something worn at the end of a shirtsleeve. Milwaukee relief pitcher Rollie Fingers, the alltime leader in saves (324), has had his career extended at least twice by surgery. Of his serious back injury, he says, "I probably would have been forced to retire if it had happened 10 years ago. I had my surgery, and I was up walking the next day. My dad required the same kind of surgery 30 years ago, and he was in a back cast for 30 days."
Players also eat more wisely, if not better, and certainly not with the gusto of a Ruth, who considered half a dozen hot dogs modest fare. Players look after themselves better in other ways, too. "In the old days, guys used to play when they were hurt because they were too scared to admit it," says the 46-year-old Niekro. "That's why players didn't last as long."
So the modern player, the drug user excepted, is in better shape than his forebears, knows the virtue of training the year round and has the benefit of more enlightened training procedures as well as vastly improved medical treatment. He earns more money, so the incentive to stay in condition and thus play longer is there in abundance. Also in his favor is the dilution of talent created by expansion and the designated-hitter rule, which has been a boon to the aged and infirm of the American League. The increasing reliance on the bullpen has probably prolonged the careers of today's starting pitchers, who, unlike their predecessors, are rarely obliged to finish a game.
With all of these advantages, are players now really any better than they were years ago? That will always remain the unanswerable question. The 1984 Tigers, alas, will never play the 1927 Yankees. Some years ago, but still in the so-called modern era, a reporter asked Lefty O'Doul, himself a .349 lifetime hitter, what he thought Ty Cobb would hit if he were playing at that time. "Oh, about .320," O'Doul replied. "Is that all?" the reporter inquired. "Well," said Lefty, "you have to remember the man is almost 70."