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Strikingly Disappointed : Their Dream Season Becomes a Nightmare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine watching Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa and running out of colors.

Imagine listening to Pavarotti singing “Ave Maria” and his microphone going dead.

Imagine perhaps the greatest offensive season in baseball history being reduced to a lousy asterisk by a strike.

Major league baseball is shut down, and no one knows when it will resume. We might never know whether Matt Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds or Albert Belle could have surpassed Roger Maris as baseball’s single-season home run leader.

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We might never know whether Tony Gwynn could have become baseball’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941.

We might never know whether Thomas could have become the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the triple crown, or even the first since George Brett in 1980 to lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

And if the strike wipes out the rest of the season, we won’t know if there would have been euphoria in Cleveland, which has endured a 40-year drought since the Indians last were in postseason play.

“This city is emotionally wrecked right now,” said Bob DiBiasio, the Indians vice president. “For the first time in 40 years, we’ve got this town turned on to baseball again, and now this.

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“For those of us who are not strong willed, you can’t help but believe that somebody is out to get us.”

Said Griffey, who hit his 40th home run Wednesday night: “We picked a bad year to have a good year.”

Despite accusations that the ball was juiced this season, the assault on the game’s most illustrious records had captivated fans.

Now, the records figure to remain standing, with no guarantee that they will be challenged again any time soon.

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“It’s like, damn, you wish this strike wasn’t coming right now,” said Bonds, who with 37 homers and 29 stolen bases was hoping to join the elite 40-40 club and win a third consecutive most valuable player award.

“They keep saying there are things only Babe Ruth could do, and now you’re seeing six, seven players who have a chance to do the same thing.”

Said Thomas, who was batting .353 with 38 homers and 101 runs batted in: “What if the numbers went down next year and nobody challenged those record again? That’s what hurts. That’s what really hurts.

“There were a few of us having career years, but we’re not getting a chance to finish it.”

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Meanwhile, the folks in San Diego, who have painfully endured the dismantling of their team the last few years, now might be robbed of witnessing one of baseball’s greatest feats.

Gwynn, batting .394, was trying to achieve a piece of baseball immortality by hitting .400. It has been nearly 60 years since anyone in the National League has hit higher than .380, the last being Arky Vaughan. Vaughan batted .385 for the 1935 Pittsburgh Pirates.

“Fans are frustrated because records are made to be broken,” Gwynn said. “They want to see some of these records fall.

“I mean, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get this close to .400. But as far as I’m concerned, getting an agreement (to end the strike) is more important than hitting .400.”

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Gwynn can bat .400 if the season resumes. He needs only 27 more plate appearances to reach the necessary minimum, and by playing in fewer games, he could actually increase his chances.

Houston Astro first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who was on a pace to produce the most RBIs since Hack Wilson’s record of 190 in 1930, didn’t even need a strike to ruin his season. He suffered a broken hand Tuesday night when he was hit by a pitch, perhaps ending his season with a .367 batting average and club records of 39 homers and 116 RBIs.

There also were the obscure records that could fall:

--Minnesota Twin second baseman Chuck Knoblauch has 45 doubles and was on pace to catch Earl Webb of the Boston Red Sox, who had a record 67 doubles in 1931.

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“I’ve gotten to know a lot about ol’ Earl,” Knoblauch said. “These records have been around for so long, so obviously they’re almost impossible to break, anyway.”

--New York Met pitcher Bret Saberhagen has a chance of becoming the first pitcher since 1919 to have more victories than walks allowed. Saberhagen is 14-4 and has walked only 13 this season, and could achieve the feat last accomplished by Harry Sallee, who walked only 20 as he posted a 21-7 record for the 1919 Cincinnati Reds.

And Saberhagen’s strikeout-to-walks ratio is 11 to 1, far ahead of Ferguson Jenkins’ record of 7.1 to 1 in 1971 for the Chicago Cubs.

--The Colorado Rockies have sold 3,281,511 tickets this season, and were on pace to eclipse their record of 4.5 million. Because this is their last season at Mile High Stadium--they will move to Coors Field, which will have a 50,200-seat capacity--it might have been a record that would have lasted forever.

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The record that never is supposed to be broken is New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive-games playing streak. Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken needs only 122 more games to break it, but the strike has presented quite a problem.

The American League tentatively set the 1995 schedule so that Ripken would be playing at home against the Yankees when the record is set. Now, with games being canceled because of the strike, the American League said Friday it can’t ensure that the Orioles will be at home for Ripken’s feat.

“We’re hoping we get lucky and the Orioles are at home, anyway,” Derek Irwin of the American League office said. “But if not, I don’t really know what we can do.”

The strike might also ruin the final year of the distinguished careers of Andre Dawson, Dave Stewart and Kent Hrbek, all of whom have announced their retirements. Fans might also have seen the last double play turned by Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.

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“If we don’t play anymore, I’m not looking to end my career on a strike-shortened season,” Stewart, 37, said. “It’s not the way I envisioned it.”

And then, there are the sagas of Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly and White Sox designated hitter Julio Franco, neither of whom has been to the playoffs in his 12-year career, and now is playing for a first-place team.

“I still dream about playing in a World Series,” Mattingly said. “And if I never got a chance at that because of the strike--well, I don’t want to even think about it.”

If it’s any solace, Jack Lang, executive secretary of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America, said postseason awards still will be presented, even if the season is not resumed.

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Ballots will be mailed out in mid-September, with instructions that they not be returned until after Oct. 3.

“We figured these are our awards,” Lang said. “There’s no need to sacrifice them, too. Besides, there’s a lot of money wrapped up in these awards. No matter if they play again or not, there’s a lot of bonus money you’re talking about.

“If Bagwell wins the MVP, he gets $100,000, and the Astros assured me that it would be paid.”

And to think that the season might have been ruined.

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* NO PROGRESS: No talks were held between the two sides in the baseball strike and no meetings are scheduled for today. C9


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