IF JOE DIMAGGIO went on a 56-game hitting streak today, the nation would be mesmerized—and not just because he is dead. Ridiculously long streaks capture our imagination. Every time I run across a statistical analysis of, for example, which NBA team is the most efficient in the first possession after a third-quarter timeout on the road—I love streaks a little more. In an ocean of explanations, they remain largely unexplainable.
The cliché It's better to be lucky than good is usually uttered by those who are neither. Athletes on streaks tend to be lucky and good. Every great streak features some luck: a broken-bat single, a shoestring catch or a shot that went front-rim, back-rim, front-rim, backboard, in.
Until last season, teams from Cleveland were known for being unlucky and bad—the city had gone 52 years without a championship. Then the Cavaliers won the NBA title. And the Indians won an American League--record 22 straight games, pulling off one of the best tricks in sports: They got rational adults thinking about magic instead of their mortgage.
The beauty of a streak is that there's no warning when it might start and nobody can tell when it will end. Some people won't change their underwear during a streak, which causes their spouses to go on a streak too.
The Indians' streak ended at home, where at least they could be properly saluted. Some streaks end with a press release, which is no way to end anything. I was at Ford Field in Detroit on Dec. 13, 2010, the night that Tarvaris Jackson played quarterback for the Vikings instead of Brett Favre, ending Favre's streak of 297 consecutive starts. It seemed exciting until I realized I was watching Tarvaris Jackson play quarterback instead of Brett Favre.
Not all streaks are noteworthy. There are millions of people who have drunk coffee for a thousand straight days, but I'm not going to applaud them because then I would have to put down my mug. Some streaks are just amusing. In college I had a classmate who skipped class for the entire month of April. (In retrospect, he was just a mate.) If he had attended a single hour of class on, say, April 11, his performance would have been just as appalling but not nearly as entertaining.
And then, of course, there are the lousy streaks, when bad meets unlucky. Mets pitcher Anthony Young lost 27 consecutive decisions between May 1992 and July '93, a function of slightly below average pitching for a team that refused to score any runs for him. A better pitcher would have won more, but a worse pitcher would have pitched less.
Some of the most riveting streaks are not even thought of as streaks. What we call a perfect game is just a one-night streak: 27 straight outs wedged into a single outing. Thirty-five straight outs over two games is more impressive statistically but not rhetorically. Nobody wants to tell their grandkids, "I was there the night Clayton Kershaw retired the last 18 Pirates in a row, and then he kept his streak going a few nights later in another city, but I can't remember which one. Cincinnati, maybe."
Professional sports are hard, being great is harder and being great over and over again defies logic. So let's raise a glass to the 2017 Indians. Their streak was not as important as a World Series title, but it was rarer. Every night, they gave Cleveland a reason to forget the Browns exist, which is a task normally left to the Browns.
A subscriber once told me he reads every issue of SI in one sitting, from front to back, without skipping a story. This means he began this issue by reading Mark Bechtel's essay on streaks and ends it by reading my column on streaks. Alas, our streak of writing about streaks was broken up by various other stories, but it allows me to keep another streak alive: writers blaming editors.
Every night the Indians gave Cleveland a reason to forget the Browns exist, which is a task normally left to the Browns.
Which streak will never be broken?
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