Monday, August 15, 2011

Greatness Begets Greatness. (Or: Why I'm Kinda-Sorta Glad Dan Uggla's Hit Streak Ended Last Night.)

Dan Uggla's hit streak came to an end last night at 33, in a losing effort against the Chicago Cubs. While Uggla still managed to be productive, courtesy of an RBI, he was prevented from extending the hit streak when a flare to shallow right was snagged by Cubs' 2B Darwin Barney on a frantic diving catch. (The irony should not be lost that a guy named "Darwin" derailed the streak's continued evolution. Rimshot, please.)

The hitting streak was possibly the most improbable in recent history, since Uggla was batting an anemic .173 at its inception on July 5. Even 33 games and impressive power numbers over that stretch have only managed to elevate Uggla's season average to a deeply substandard .231. Nonetheless, his remarkable performance over that duration played a key role in keeping the Braves offense afloat sans Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. This was the kind of production Atlanta was hoping for when they acquired Uggla in the off-season, and rarely has the old adage "better late than never" been more apt. So ended the longest Big League hitting streak since 2006. In its wake, I find myself ruminating on the hypothetical significance of what might have been had Uggla kept the train rolling long enough to eclipse Joe DiMaggio's 56-game milestone.

That 56 represents one of the few truly fascinating numbers left in all of sports. To put things in perspective: Uggla still would have needed 23 more consecutive games with a hit to tie Joltin' Joe. In other words, he was still 41% shy of the required total. The best streak in the majors in five years still only got him 60% of the way there. The unassailable nature of DiMaggio's achievement tends to render these brief flashes towards it somewhat quaint. Hitting streaks, of course, are always fun, but more in a "museum gift shop curiosity" way than an actual "wow, this might happen" sense. And we like it that way. At least when someone like Dan Uggla is making a run at history.

The simple fact is that great feats generally require inherent greatness. That sounds redundant to the point of banality, but it's also true. Across the record books of sporting history, all the "significant" top slots are held by instantly recognizable names; players who are already enshrined in or are undeniably on their way to their respective Halls of Fame. No pertinent records rest in the hands of lesser talents. A quick rundown:


All-time Goals: Wayne Gretzky
All-time Assists: "" ""
All-time Saves: Martin Brodeur


All-time Points: Kareem Abdul Jabbar
All-time Assists: John Stockton
All-time Rebounds: Wilt Chamberlain


All-time Rushing Yards: Emmit Smith
All-time Passing Yards: Brett Favre
All-time TDs: Jerry Rice

MLB (Because I'm a persnickety grouch, I'm awarding the HR numbers to their "clean" holders.):

All-time Hits: Pete Rose
All-time Home Runs: Hank Aaron
All-time HR (Single Season): Roger Maris
All-time Strikeouts: Nolan Ryan
All-time Saves: Trevor Hoffman

And, of course, DiMaggio's aforementioned 56.

Baseball is the sport in which such numbers are more sacrosanct and revered than any other. It's why writers and fans were so up-in-arms over Bonds and Sosa and Big Mac "tainting" those long-ball records. (And why I wrote in the names I did above.) It's why we'll never see Roger Clemens' career through lenses that aren't colored with suspicion and ill will. We care about these things because they represent the height of accomplishment, a step beyond the grasp of mere mortals. Which is why it would have been highly disturbing to our sensibilities if Dan Uggla had somehow managed to equal or surpass that 56-game mark.

As a die-hard Braves fan, I was rooting for Uggla to succeed. Heck, I'd like our entire lineup to go on ludicrous hitting streaks. Frankly, our offense could use the help. But as a baseball fan, I didn't really want him to break that record. It would have been nice if he had extended the streak for another 2 weeks or so, ending it somewhere in the low-to-mid 40s. In a season where we can already see the vast majority of postseason teams ensconced in the playoffs, any little storyline that upped the amplitude on the "exciting" meter would have been a welcome boon. But really, we didn't want to see Uggla striding to the plate at 55 games, did we? Look at the names on that list again. Does he belong there? No offense to Dan Uggla, but the answer has to be a resounding "NO", right?

Of course, if he'd gone ahead and done it, we'd certainly have to say he earned it. Hit streaks aren't the kind of thing that can be engineered with PEDs or sign stealing or any other "untoward" methods. They're statistically improbable, fluky occurrences, fueled by a strange combination of luck, skill, and loosely ineffable terms like "groove." If it had happened, we'd have to give Uggla his due. But it didn't, and that's a good thing, because we didn't want to.

The dichotomy about records rests in the old saying "made to be broken." We hate the notion that the best possible outcome has already been relegated to the past, because it implies a larger inability to reach our own personal and societal apexes. We want to believe that there's always another plateau, that new heights of greatness are still attainable. Even in the case of something like Cy Young's 511 wins, which can't possibly be approached in the "modern era" of specialized pitching an comparatively expanded rotations, we can still find ways to say "yeah, but if ..." and put current and future pitchers in roughly the same ballpark. (No pun intended.) The caveat, of course, is that it matters a great deal who does the breaking.

If Albert Pujols, for instance, hits in 57 straight games next season, we'll rejoice. Headlines will stream and TV specials will air and media and fans will fall all over themselves to concoct the most sappy, lyrical way to express what a great and historic moment that 57th at-bat was. I can almost assure you that any such jubilant proclamations would have been mingled with no small amount of grumbling (and a huge sense of letdown) had Uggla done it this year. We would have felt as if we'd been deprived of something, like a small part of our national mythology had been irrevocably defiled. We enjoy assaults on history, but only if they're driven by appropriately iconic figures. Nobody, after all, wants Joe Schmoe pulling Excalibur from the stone.

So baseball collectively breathed a small sigh of relief last night, and Joltin' Joe's 56 remains safe for the nonce. With all due respect to Dan Uggla, I hope that next time it falls into potential jeopardy, the man wielding the bat is worthy of seeing it through.

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