One thing I've written quite a bit about this year is that we choose what we celebrate in sports. We. All of us. It's like a vote. As I wrote once before: We don't need a good reason to celebrate, we only need a consensus. This isn't just true of sports. My family decided at some point that our true holiday was Oscar Night, and so for a while we would all come back and watch the Oscars together. Did this make sense? No. But it made sense to us.
And it isn't just true of celebrations either. Here's a random sports example: I sometimes wonder why we so readily accept the NFL playoff tie-breaking system. We break up NFL ties based on head-to-head match-ups … OK, that makes some sense. But assuming the teams split, we move on to divisional record which is OK, I suppose. Then the record in common games. Then conference record. Strength of schedule. Points differential. Net points in common games. Net points in all games. Net touchdowns. I mean, at some point, this is plainly ludicrous.
And we know the league thinks it's ludicrous because if none of those things break the tie then they go to a coin flip.
We all know how much the NFL playoffs means -- to a team, to a city, to fans, to everybody. And we break playoff ties based on puzzling mathematical breakdowns that don't really tell us which team is better. Why is there not intense outrage and mutiny in great American cities when their teams get knocked out of the playoffs even though they have the exact same record as teams in the playoffs? Why should my team's 10-win season be worth less than theirs because of our conference record (come on) or strength of schedule (which we don't' control) or point differential (are we supposed to run up scores now?)
It's because: We have a consensus on the NFL tiebreaker. Hey, we have to break these ties somehow. Play-in games are not feasible. We're not ready to allow computer simulations break ties. So, we'll go with these tiebreakers as far as we have to go, including the coin flip if it ever comes to that. Is it fair? Logical? Legitimate? Well, we say it is. So it is.
We also say it is good and proper and fun to celebrate baseball's round numbers -- 3,000th hit, 2,000th hit, 500th homer, 600th homer, 300th victory, 3000th strikeout and all that. Is that any more reasonable than celebrating the 3,0001st hit, the 601st homer, the 301st win? Well, yes: Because we say so. Just the other day, there was a little bit of iChaos over Michael Young's 2,000th hit and whether or not that was a great enough accomplishment to celebrate. It turns out that 234 players since 1900 have reached 2,000 hits, which is more than I would have guessed. The way I look at it is more or less the way I look at everything: Everything is worth celebrating if you can get enough people to celebrate. Michael Young has been a fine player. Two thousand hits is a fine thing. If people want to throw a Texas-sized party for him, all I ask is: Can you point me to the barbecue?
Which brings us to: Hit streaks. Obviously hit streaks are on the mind these days because Dan Uggla is doing something so utterly unlikely that we can't help but be drawn to it (or repelled by it, I suppose). Uggla was well on his way to the lowest batting average in the history of the National League when he began this hitting streak. And the streak is at 31 games now, more than halfway to the magic number, 25 games away from Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.
In my mind, Joe DiMaggio invented the hit streak in 1941 It is probably his enduring contribution to baseball. Every single time you hear an announcer say that Neifi Perez is on a modest six-game hitting streak, every time you read a story about a player having a nine-game hitting streak snapped, every time people on radio discuss how much longer a player can keep a hit streak alive … I think thats ALL because of DiMaggio. If that had been Tuck Stainback hitting in 56 straight games, I suspect it would be an interesting but relatively obscure baseball quirk. And I suspect hit streaks on the whole might be viewed as interesting but otherwise pointless statistical blarney.*
*Who has there record for most consecutive games with a double? Do you know?
But he was Joe DiMaggio. He hit in 56 straight games when the world was going to hell and America was clinging desperately to the last summer of peace. And so the streak grew into something mythical and fantastic and meaningful, something deep about consistency and the power of an individual and all the other stuff you can read in Kostya's fine book about it. It was a marvelous assembly of the right player, the right moment and the right achievement. It left much of America -- and still leaves much of a America -- marveling at the way we at our best can triumph over odds.
But is that really true? Or do we just want it to be true. More or less everything we do is against great odds, of course. I'm on a plane right now flying from New York to Charlotte . I'm sitting next someone I don't know. The odds in a world of eight billion that I would ever end up sitting next to this guy are probably pretty astronomical. But that sort of thing happens all the time. We just choose not to celebrate it (or, in my case, even talk to this guy sitting next to me). DiMaggio's streak inspired us to care … and so we did care. And we still care.
I mentioned above that if it had been Tuck Stainback who hit in 56 straight games, we probably would not view hit streaks the same way. Well, you could counter that Tuck Stainback could not hit in 56 straight games. And you would probably be right, though Uggla's 31-game hitting streak opens up almost any possibility. Still: the hit streak is quirky. You probably know the answer because it's one of the greatest baseball trivia questions ever. But I'll ask again. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak lasted from May 15, 1941 to July 16, 1941. Over those two months, who had the higher batting average: Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams?
Well, you know: It's Ted.
DiMaggio during hit streak: .408/.463/.717
Ted Williams over same stretch of time: .412/.540/.684
It wasn't just average. Williams was probably a more productive hitter over that time. DiMaggio did slug 43 points higher because he hit four triples during the streak (Williams hit none) and he hit three more homers than the Splinter. But Williams walked so much -- he walked 50 times to DiMaggio's 21 -- that it sure seems like he was the guy you would want at the plate. According to Tom Tango's formula, a team of Streaking DiMaggios would score 13.1 runs per game. A team of Splendid Splinters would score 17.7 runs.
*It's worth mentioning here because amazing things are always worth mentioning: DIMaggio struck out just five times during the entire streak and, absurdly, he did not strike out a single time in the last 32 games of the streak. Of course, strikeouts were not nearly as prominent in 1941 as they are now. But, it's still pretty great. Williams, incidentally, struck out only nine times over the same two-month period.
It isn't just Ted Williams. I imagine quite a few players have been about as good or better over 56-game stretches as DiMaggio was over his hit streak. I just did a cursory search and came up with these 56-game stretches:
George Brett (May 31-August 26, 1980): .476/.523/.773.
Mickey Mantle (May 1-June 29, 1957): .404/.540/.782
Frank Thomas (May 7-July 7, 1994): .425/.546/.865
Stan Musial (April 29-June 27, 1948): .422/.506/.784
John Olerud (April 13-June 12 1993): .406/.506/.731
Mike Piazza (May 24-July 28, 1996): .403/.449/.692
Todd Helton (April 3-June 7, 2000 -- first 56 games): .405/.500/.779
And so on.
So DiMaggio wasn't BETTER than some other great players over his 56-game hitting streak. He wasn't more consistent (assuming batting average measures consistency). But he got at least one hit every day. And none of the others did.
Which brings us back to Uggla. Tom Tango unveiled a fascinating tidbit the other day -- Dan Uggla actually hit about the same over a 40-game stretch last July and August as he has been hitting during this hitting streak.
During the hitting streak: .355/.409/.685
40-game stretch last year: .354/.440/.660
Tom's point -- and it's fair -- is nobody cared about Uggla's 40-game stretch last year. But this year, because he has spread out his hits so that he's had at least one every game, it might be the most talked about story in the game.
And I understand his frustration. There is no intrinsic value in a hit streak. You could hypothetically hit less than .250 and have a 100 game-hitting streak. Tommy Agee did have a 20-game hitting streak where he hit .288. There's no reason I know to believe that 10 hits spread out evenly over 10 games is worth any more than 10 hits spread out any other way over 10 games.
But here's the thing: We do admire hitting streaks. We celebrate them. And, like with the round numbers, I guess I don't see anything wrong with that. All of sports is of little consequence except to the people who care. If you like baseball, the World Series is a huge event. If you don't, you might not even know it's happening. If you care about the NBA or women's basketball or hockey or tennis or MMA or NASCAR, you follow those things closely. If you don't, you are probably unaware of their very existence. On Friday, Tiger Woods made a long par putt on the first hole, and the announcers all agreed it was "an important putt." At that moment, he was seven-over-par, 14 shots behind the leader, unlikely to even make the cut, all but assured of not being any sort of factor in the tournament. How could such a trivial putt earn the weight word "important?"
Well, if you like golf, if you have spent a great deal of your life following Tiger Woods, if you are always looking for clues about his future and whether or not he will ever again be the best player in the word, well, in that context maybe it was an important putt … or at least an "interesting" putt. That's not just golf. That's not just Tiger. That's sports.
And so, baseball fans have come to celebrate the hitting streak. Does it make sense? Maybe not. But, if you think about it: Does any of it REALLY make sense?
One more thought: There's no way, of course, that Dan Uggla will hit in 56 straight games. We know that. Heck, at this moment, he's still hitting .224 for the year and .258 for his career. He strikes out a ton. If you put together the least likely every day players to break DiMaggio's record, he would be in the photograph. So, no, there's no way. In fact, I need to hurry and finish this and get it online Friday afternoon because there's a darned good chance the streak will end tonight.*
*It did not end Friday night ... Uggla extended the streak to 32 games in his first at-bat. Down to 24 games now.
But what if he did do it? What if the impossible happened? What if after all the books, all the odes, all the mathematical formulas, all the theories about DiMaggio's streak being the most unbreakable feat in sports … what if after all that the streak was not only broken, but broken by DAN UGGLA.
Well, for once, nobody would be able to say: "Crazier things have happened."*
*I am not entirely sure of this, but I believe Derrek Lee has the record with eight consecutive games with a double.