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Original Issue

Shooting Stars

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

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 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.

"I just blocked it out," Mitchell, who's now with the Reds, says of the talk of 61. "I knew I wasn't breaking no record. I couldn't even break the speed limit back then."

In 1969 the Oakland A's Jackson began August with 40 home runs, the most at that point of a season since Maris set the record. But he hit only five that month and just two in September, and he didn't even win the home run championship of the American League; Harmon Killebrew beat him with 49.

No player has ever entered September needing fewer than 16 homers to tie Maris's record. (Jackson's 45 in '69 was the most at the start of that month in the past 32 years.) Now, in a 500-channel universe with such an insatiable appetite for celebrity news that the President's undershorts are fair game, it is almost impossible to imagine the scrutiny that would attend Griffey's mounting a September run at Maris. Goodness, ESPN was cutting into its programming last week for live pictures of Griffey as he tried to break Mantle's major league record of 20 home runs through May. He did it on May 23, saving the network's viewers a week of breathless reportage. At week's end Griffey, with 22 homers, was on a pace to hit 74 and accumulate 479 total bases, which would surpass the record total of 457, set by Ruth in 1921.

"That man doesn't feel any pressure," says Mitchell, who played with Griffey in Seattle in 1992. "He just goes out and has fun. It doesn't surprise me at all what he's doing, because the man is unreal. He used to tell me in the outfield, 'How come this game is so easy to me, Mitch?' You can go ahead and put an S on his chest because the only thing that's going to stop him is kryptonite."

Griffey, whose father played 19 seasons in the majors, grew up around the game and is accustomed to the demands of celebrity. The same cannot be said of O'Neill, who is bewildered about the attention drawn by what was, at week's end, a .456 batting average—easily surpassing Rogers Hornsby's .424 in 1924. O'Neill's run at becoming the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in '41 depends in no small measure on how long he can tune out the daily distractions.

Says Olerud of the Blue Jays, who hit .402 through July last year and .290 thereafter, "As I got closer to the end of the year, I said, "Well, I've gotten this far. Maybe it can work out.' That changed my focus. That's when I got in trouble."

When the Royals' George Brett came within 10 points and five hits of .400 in 1980, he had the advantage of playing most of the season without being subjected to an intense watch. Brett was hitting .337 at the All-Star break and didn't get to .400 until Aug. 17.

O'Neill will have to endure an entire season of scrutiny to get there. His advantage, though, is a large cushion. The most important question no longer is, Can O'Neill hit .400? It is something with a much more plausible ring to it: Can O'Neill hit .379 over the final four months? Given his current rate of at bats, that is what he would have to do to finish at or above .400.

Carter, with 56 RBIs in Toronto's first 48 games, was on track at week's end to challenge Hack Wilson's record of 190 in 1930. (For those of you scoring at home, that total put Carter on a pace for 189 ribbies.) "No way," says the Yankees' Don Mattingly, who drove in 145 runs in 1985. "No way 190 is going down." As Molitor says, "That's Bugs Bunny numbers, like from some cartoon, like it's not real."

Undeterred, Carter says, "I can do it. I would never place limits on my ability. I've got three guys in front of me who get on base almost 40 percent of the time, and all of them can score from first base on a hit." They would be Devon White, Roberto Alomar and Molitor, who combined to get on base 231 times in 48 games through Sunday. Still, Carter is unlikely to out-hack Wilson. No one has come within 30 RBIs of the record in the past 55 years.

Want more number crunching? Calculators ready, go figure:

•At week's end Thomas had scored 58 runs in 46 games. If he keeps that up, he'll score 204 runs, or 27 more than Ruth's major league record set in 1921.

•Earl Webb's 62-year-old record of 67 two-base hits is in doubles jeopardy, especially when you consider that Walker (on pace for 81 two-baggers) plays on an artificial-turf home field.

•Smith was on track to get 70 saves. Bobby Thigpen, then of the White Sox, holds the record, with a mere 57 in 1990.

"For the most part, it's offensive stats being challenged," says Carter. "That's because a lot of pitchers simply haven't learned how to pitch. This is great for the game. I'm all for it. It's easy for most people to look for the negative in anything. But I say just sit back and enjoy this."

Alas, a calculator cannot account for one other element of the equation: The possibility of a players' strike looms, as threatening to the season as a pin pressed to a balloon. "It's like the alien," Molitor says. "Just when you don't think about it, it comes back bigger than ever."

The players are expected to set a strike deadline at a meeting during the All-Star break in July. Eighteen months after reopening negotiations for a basic agreement, the owners still have not delivered to the players a plan to pay them under a salary-cap system. They did present other proposals last week that only discouraged the union, such as crediting players for only half of the service time for days spent on the disabled list. It seems kryptonite is not all that could stop Griffey. "What are we supposed to do, forgo a strike because Junior's got 50 home runs on September 1?" Molitor asks.

A work stoppage would damage the start-up effort of the owners' joint television venture, The Baseball Network; the integrity of an expanded postseason format that already has invited some public skepticism; and the endeavors of the players on pace to break single-season records. That cannot be a pleasing calculation for anyone, with the possible exception of St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Ray Lankford. He's on a pace to break Bobby Bonds's 1970 strikeout record of 189.

Statistics source: Elias Sports Bureau