Old Feats Not Made of Clay

Well, it's that time of the year again. "Take me out to the ballgame . . . buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack," and all that jazz.

By the way, did you know the guy who wrote that song, baseball's anthem, had never even seen a ballgame?

I didn't know it, either, till I read it in a fun book "Out of Left Field" by Jeffrey and Douglas Lyons.

Remember when there were only 16 major league teams? Thirty will tee it up in a couple of weeks for the grand old game's 100-something anniversary.

It gives us an opportunity to gaze into ye olde crystal ball and hazard a prediction or two:

* For the 57th consecutive year, or ever since Ted Williams did it in '41, no one in the American League will bat .400. For the 68th consecutive year, or since Bill Terry did it in 1930, no National Leaguer will do it either.

* For the 61st consecutive year in the National League, or since Joe Medwick in 1937, no one will win the triple crown--most homers and RBIs and highest batting average in the league. For the 31st consecutive year, or since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, no one will win the triple crown in the American League.

* For the 37th consecutive season, or since Roger Maris hit 61 in '61, no one will hit 60 home runs. But, don't bet the farm. Last year, there were 2,477 home runs hit in the American League and 2,267 in the National. Know how many home runs were hit in the league the year Babe Ruth hit 60? Only 439. That's not even a good week anymore.

* For the 64th consecutive year, no pitcher will win 30 or more games in the National League. For the 30th consecutive year, no one will win 30 in the American League. For the 90th consecutive year, no one in either league will win 40.

* For the first time in history, a defending World Series champion probably will finish last. The Florida Marlins have sent their title-winning players packing. The last time something like that happened, the Philadelphia Athletics, after winning the pennant in 1914, dismantled their team, going from first place with a 99-53 record to last place with a 49-103 record. But they had lost the 1914 World Series in four straight to Boston's "Miracle Braves."

* Now that corporate America owns the games people play, look for the ante to go up all over the place. Look for .230 hitters to become rich as Rockefellers or the Sun Kings of France. Try to recall that Yogi Berra got a $500 signing bonus and, in his 17 full seasons with the Yankees, they won 14 pennants and 11 World Series.

* Never mind the disappearing 30-game winners, how about the 20-game winners? There was only one 20-game winner in the NL last year and there were only three in the American League. In 1994 and 1995, there were no 20-game winners in either league. Contrast that with 1908 in the American League, when Big Ed Walsh won 40 games.

* Look for the complete game to continue to lip out. The Oakland A's had only two complete games pitched in all of last season's 162. The Dodgers had only six. Cy Young pitched 751 complete games in his 22-season career. Walter Johnson finished 531 of the 666 he started. Jack Chesbro completed 48 games in 1904. Pitchers today don't have that many in a career.

* Look for the "save" to supersede the "win." The save is a little refinement brought into statistical baseball in the '60s, when it became clear the game was being given over to the six-inning pitcher and a cluster of relief pitchers known as "middle relievers" and "closers."

The "blown save" has crept into the literature of baseball. This is like when the fireman drops the baby in the burning building.

But saves are far more numerous than wins for closers--or starters, for that matter. Last year, Randy Myers in Baltimore had 45. Cincinnati's Jeff Shaw had 42. The save record for a season is 57 by Bobby Thigpen of the 1990 Chicago White Sox. A "savior" may have to pitch to only one batter.

* Look for the sacrifice bunt to continue its slow, steady phase-out. Did you know that Harmon Killebrew never bunted in his major league career? He hit 505 home runs, though. When 4,744 home runs are hit in a season, who wants to give up an out to gain a base?

* For the 30th consecutive season, look for the bats to get smaller and lighter. Babe Ruth swung a 54-ounce telephone pole. Batters today whip sticks they could pick their teeth with. Under 30 ounces will be next.

* For the second consecutive season, look for a team that didn't win a division title to win the World Series. Only this time, it won't be Florida.

* For the 57th year in a row, no one will break Joe DiMaggio's consecutive-game hitting streak of 56. And bear in mind that when Pete Rose tied Wee Willie Keeler's 44-game National League streak in 1978, it was 81 years old.

* Look for no-hit games. More than 200 of them have been served up over the years. But for the 60th consecutive year, don't look for Johnny Vander Meer's two consecutive no-hitters to be duplicated. In fact, for the 25th consecutive year, since Nolan Ryan did it for the Angels in 1973, no one will pitch two no-hitters. Look for this season's no-hitters to be served up by nobodies.

* For the 66th consecutive year, don't look for anybody to call his shot in a World Series, and for the 21st consecutive year, don't look for anybody to hit three home runs in one Series game and five for the Series. In fact, Reggie Jackson hit four home runs on four consecutive pitches--over two games--in the 1977 fall classic.

* For the 11th consecutive year, no one will steal 100 bases, although Brien Hunter's 74 last season in the American League for Detroit and Tony Womack's 60 in the NL for Pittsburgh are far cries from Dom DiMaggio's American League-leading total of 15 in 1950 and Stan Hack's National League-leading total of 16 in 1938.

Still, 'tis a grand old game and I'd like to be proved wrong. But it's not the way to bet.

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