Saturday, October 1, 2011

511, 309, 36

When the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera broke Trevor Hoffman’s baseball regular-season career saves record of 601 a few weeks ago, a considerable fuss was made, and appropriately. Rivera is a great relief pitcher and we might not see his like again for quite a while.

But the suggestions that his mark (which still is abuilding) might never be broken seemed way off the mark. Yes, he has almost 300 more saves than any other active pitcher (Francisco Cordero is next with 326), but never is a long time, which is why the adage “never say never” is, well, an adage. Rivera isn’t Superman, so some day someone will beat it. Of that you can be sure.

The same can be said of just about every other baseball record. Ty Cobb’s career hits mark of 4,189 stood for 57 years but Pete Rose took it down in 1985; eventually, someone will take down Rose’s 4,256. Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive-games hitting streak of 56, set in 1941, is widely seen as eternal, but heck, it’s already been topped in the minor leagues and the colleges, and it, too, will fall.

However (my favorite word), a few diamond records are highly unlikely to be surpassed, because of the way the sport has changed over the decades. Foremost among these is the 511 wins that Denton “Cy” Young posted in a 22-season Major League career that began in 1890 and ended in 1911. Less noticed, but no less noteworthy, I think, are the marks for the most three-base hits, or triples. For multiple reasons, none of them reversible, the three-bagger has become an endangered species. That’s a sad fate for this most-exciting of baseball’s recurring plays.

First, let’s look at Young’s mark. His towering win total spanned some fundamental changes in baseball’s rules, such as the 1893 movement of the pitcher’s rubber (actually, it was a “box” before then) from 55 feet 6 inches from home plate to its present 60 feet, 6 inches. It came at a time when starting pitchers performed at least every fourth game instead of every fifth or sixth as at present, and were expected to finish what they started. The game’s so-called “dead-ball era”—before the introduction of cork-centered baseballs in 1911 (Young’s last competitive year) — boosted pitchers’ egos by keeping scores low.

Still, no pitcher even then came close to Young’s achievements, making them a unique product of the man and his time. A big right hander, officially listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds although he grew heavier as he aged, the young Cy had such a blazing fastball that his nickname was short for “cyclone,” for the reputed force of his deliveries. His velocity slowed with time, as all pitchers’ do, but he compensated with a rubber arm and the always-superior control that gave him a 1.5 walks-per-game average that few others have matched. “I aim to make the batter hit the ball, and throw as few pitches as possible,” Young noted as his career wound down.

Besides his wins record, 94 greater than anyone else’s, the Ohio farmer holds the career marks for innings pitched (7,356), starts (815), complete games (749) and (uh-huh) loses (316), all also invulnerable. He had 15 seasons with 20 or more victories and five with 30 or more. He threw the first pitch in World Series history, in the 1903 matchup of his Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates (Boston won it, five games to three), and in 1904 recorded the first perfect game in the new century. Wrote the poet Ogden Nash:

“Y is for Young
The magnificent Cy;
People batted against him
But I never knew why.”

The decline of the triple has so long been part of baseball life that few fans today know the records for the feat, or their holders; they are 309 for a career, by Sam Crawford (1899-1917), and 36 for a season, by the Pirates’ John Wilson, in 1912. The unlikelihood of their being surpassed is seen by the facts that only three currently active Major Leaguers—veterans Carl Crawford, Jimmy Rollins and Johnny Damon— have hit as many as 100, and that no player who performed after 1928 has hit as many as 200. A dozen by one player in a season these days can lead a league.

Lots of triples were the result of an era in which batted balls didn’t carry well, outfielders played shallow and wore little, flat gloves quite unlike the baskets their present-day counterparts tote, and ballparks were huge and, often, oddly shaped. The centerfield fence in the Polo Grounds in New York was a distant 483 feet from home plate; at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Cleveland’s League Park they were 460-plus feet away. Balls that got past outfielders there rolled and rolled, and allowed batters to run and run. Inside-the-park home runs were about as common as one’s hit over a fence.

Most baseball statistical records are just that—statistics. Aside from its historical significance Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run in 2001 wasn’t much different from his first that season, or his 22nd, or 46th. The triple, though, is the kind of play-- beginning with a sharply hit ball between the outfielders and, usually, ending in a cloud of dust and an umpire’s close call—that engenders intrinsic and unique excitement. Its eclipse by modern trends is to be mourned.

To appreciate what we’re missing we must turn to the arts, specifically to Philip Roth’s 1973 baseball-themed book “The Great American Novel.” In it Luke Gofannon, Roth’s fictional superstar, had just completed a strenuous bout of lovemaking with a famous beauty. Under her questioning, he professed that she thrilled him more than a stolen base, a shoestring catch or a home run. (“Smack a homer and that’s it, it’s over,” he said.).

But when the woman asked him if she’d been better than a triple, his evaluation changed. “I can’t tell a lie,” he said. “There just ain’t nothing like a triple.”

No comments: