- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

The hitting streak.

It’s the breeze that stirs the wind chimes during baseball’s long, sweaty summer. How could we possibly survive any season without a valiant but ultimately failed attempt to break the unbreakable — Joe DiMaggio’s record of hitting in 56 consecutive games, set in the pre-Marilyn days of 1941?

Hitting streaks sustain us, distract us, enthrall us. (Not that it takes much. I mean, look at the popularity of the Sausage Race.) We’re drawn to them, like mosquitoes to a bug zapper, even though we already know how it’s going to end. Nobody, after all, has seriously threatened Joe D’s mark in the last 65 years; the closest chalchallenger has been Pete Rose, who hit ‘em where they weren’t for 44 straight games in 1978 — a dozen short.

And yet, by the time Charlie Hustle got to 40, most of the hemisphere was following his heroics. That’s how it is with hitting streaks. They become part of our daily lives — “Did Pete get a hit today?” — for weeks at a time. Every night we watch the highlights, every morning we check the box scores, to see whether the streaker defied the odds again.

The latest object of our fascination is the Phillies’ Chase Utley, who ran his streak to 34 games last night in St. Louis. Yes, Utley has a long way to go to catch DiMaggio, but his feat is nothing to sniff at. Indeed, he has 23 multiple-hit games during the streak. Joltin’ Joe had “only” 19, Rose 18.

The wonder of it. There Utley was, knocking around in the .290s in late June, when the hits started falling — a two-run homer for openers. The next day: a single. The game after that: another homer. And then … it was as if the Phils’ second baseman turned into Rogers Hornsby. Two hits, two hits, two hits, one hit, two hits, three hits, three hits — and so on.

So it is with hitting streaks. They can happen to Hall of Famers like DiMaggio, Hornsby (33 games in 1922) and Ty Cobb (40 in 1911), or they can happen to mere mortals like Ken Landreaux (31 in 1980), Jerome Walton (30 in 1989) and Sandy Alomar Jr. (30 in 1997). Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter ever, never had a streak as long as 30 games — but George McQuinn, a modestly talented first baseman for the St. Louis Browns, did. In fact, McQuinn, pride of Arlington, kept it going for 34 games in 1938. Only 13 streaks have been longer.

Likewise, the legendary Cap Anson never put together a long streak; but the shortstop on his 1894 Chicago Colts team, a .274 career hitter named Bill Dahlen, managed two of them — back to back. Dahlen hit in 42 straight games that season, got shut down by Cincinnati, then went off on a 28-game streak. That’s right, folks, hits in 70 of 71 games (a feat surpassed only by DiMaggio’s 72-for-73 streak in 1941).

Some guys just have the knack. Heinie Manush of the Original Nats had a 26-gamer followed by a 33-gamer in 1933; three years earlier, he had two 27-gamers. More recently, Nomar Garciaparra had a 30-gamer, a 26-gamer and a couple of other lengthy streaks. Then there’s Paul Molitor, who stepped off the disabled list in 1987 and immediately began a 39-gamer.

No matter who’s getting the base knocks, though, there are few things that liven up August quite like a hitting streak. You think back to 1980, when George Brett was in the midst of a 30-game run that raised his average from .366 to .404 (before it settled at .390). It doesn’t get any better than that — especially since it’s the closest we’ve come to a .400 season since Williams.

We love hitting streaks, we truly do. The seamheads tell us that on-base percentage is a better measure of a hitter than batting average — and perhaps it is — but it doesn’t change one central fact: Hitting a major league pitch may be the most difficult task in all of sports. That’s why, while Barry Bonds’ .609 OBP in 2004 is astounding, the most awe-inspiring number from that season will always be 262 — Ichiro Suzuki’s hit total.

It’s also why Orlando Cabrera’s streak of reaching base in 63 consecutive games earlier this season didn’t generate nearly as much buzz as Utley’s hitting streak. Walks are swell, but they make no sound. The crack of the bat, on the other hand, can be heard in the most distant reaches of the upper deck — and sometimes beyond.

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