We Don't Care If We Never Get Back

Article excerpt

Great teams, big trades, luminous stars. As this season comes to a crescendo, it's clear there's never been a better year.

"... when the world is puddle-wonderful ..." --e e cummings

That is how the world has been since April, for baseball fans. Four years ago there were no games on Labor Day weekend. Labor troubles had stopped play on Aug. 12, when Tony Gwynn was batting .394 and could have made a run at .400. Matt Williams had 43 home runs and a shot at 61. What a waste. This year the country is doing what it does when it is healthy--thinking more about baseball than about almost anything else. There is more Mark than Monica in the media. Puddle-wonderful.

This is the greatest baseball season since (don't even try to slay this myth with mere facts) young Abner Doubleday wandered into Farmer Phinney's pasture near Cooperstown and invented baseball ex nihilo. Go on, name a better season.

In 1914 Boston's "Miracle Braves" came from last place on July 19 to win the pennant. Batters put up gaudy numbers in 1930: the Cubs' Hack Wilson hit 56 home runs, a league record until last week, and drove in 190 runs. (No one has driven in even 160 in the 60 years since Jimmie Foxx had 175 in 1938.) In 1930 the National League had its last .400 hitter (Bill Terry, .401); 33 National Leaguers and 30 American Leaguers hit .300 or better; the entire National League batted .303. But these numbers were so aberrant that the ball must have been juiced, so the season just seems weird.

In 1941 Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games, and the World Series turned on a passed ball by the Dodgers' catcher, Mickey Owen. In 1942 the Cardinals, with young Stan Musial, were 9i games back on Aug. 15, went 37-6 and beat the Dodgers. In 1946 the Cardinals and Dodgers were tied entering the last day. Both lost. The Cardinals won the playoff. In 1949 Boston led the Yankees by one game with two to go in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees won both, the last in front of 68,055. In 1951 three New York teams (with four outfielders named DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays and Snider) finished first. The Giants came from 13i games back on Aug. 11, winning 37 of 44 regular-season games and beating the Dodgers in the third game of the playoff with Bobby Thomson's home run.

Great collapses make memorable seasons. The 1964 Phillies were six games ahead with 16 to play, but went 4-12 the rest of the way. Four teams had a chance to win with four games to go. The Cardinals won. On July 18, 1978, the Red Sox (61-28) led the Yankees (47-42) by 14 games. The rest of the way the Yankees went 52-21, the Red Sox 34-35. They ended tied. The Yankees won the playoff on a home run by Bucky (Expletive Deleted) Dent, as he is known in New England.

If pitching is your dish, 1968 was your year. Runs per game (6.84) fell almost to the record low of 6.77 set in 1908 when the ball was dead. The major league batting average was .237, the lowest ever. The Yankees average (.214) was far below that of the 120-loss Mets of 1962 (.240). The highest average in the American League was Carl Yastrzemski's .301. Denny McLain (31-6) became the first pitcher since Dizzy Dean in 1934 to win 30 games. Juan Marichal (26-9) had 30 complete games, Don Drysdale had 58h consecutive scoreless innings. Bob Gibson set a National League record with a 1.12 ERA. The owners responded by slicing the pitcher's mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and moving in some fences. Most fans want maximum offense.

Which brings us to 1998. Mark McGwire hit four home runs in the Cardinals' first four games this season, a harbinger. The Yankees lost four of their first five games. Not a harbinger. On the Sunday before the All-Star break, the Padres' Andy Ashby pitched a complete game 5-hitter. Facing just 30 batters, he threw 75 pitches, 55 of them strikes. Twenty-seven outs, 20 balls. Game time: two hours and one minute. Lack of offense can be exciting.

At the All-Star game in Denver, Ken Griffey Jr. …