NEW YORK — The months of May and June bring an annual baseball ritual.
They're the months when people forget how long the season is.
Now matter how many seasons you've seen, no matter how many comebacks and slumps have come and gone, you forget baseball's unequaled power to reduce a team or individual to percentage.
The New York Mets opened the season by winning 20 of their first 25 games and, the way they were playing, it became hard to imagine they could fail to win the National League East. By July.
Just as quickly, though, their ace right-hander Dwight Gooden lost a game to a Cincinnati team going through its worst start in years.
"It's a 162-game season," said Cincinnati outfielder Dave Parker. "The Mets are playing great right now, but what are they going to be doing 50 or 60 games from now? It's a season of ups and downs. The Mets will have their downs and so will the Yankees. We haven't had our ups yet. But it's coming."
The ups and downs provide comfort and caution to baseball players and teams. The Red Sox finished the first four weeks of the season playing .667 ball. For an idea of how unrealistic that figure is, consider that in their wildly successful 1984 season, the Detroit Tigers had only a .642 winning percentage. In 1983, when the Chicago White Sox won the AL West by 20 games, they won only 61.2% of their games.
The long season means that Tom Lasorda, manager of a slow-starting Dodger team, can smile while throwing a rotation of Fernando Valenzuela, Bob Welch, Orel Hershiser, Jerry Reuss and Rick Honeycutt. Good pitching tends to take care of a manager as the season grows long.
"I can guarantee a couple of things before the season starts," Lasorda and other managers have said. "Every team will win at least 50 games. Every team will lose at least 50 games. It's what you do with the other 62 games that matter."
The long season means that: a 10-game winning streak guarantees nothing (except increased gate) for the Cleveland Indians; a 15-13 start leaves the Texas Rangers with plenty to prove, and the White Sox, despite winning 10 of their first 28 games, had 134 chances to do better.
The last two seasons show what can happen to an individual across the breadth of a 162-game schedule. In May of 1984, Rick Sutcliffe was just another of 25 players going nowhere with the the Cleveland Indians. Months after that, he had gone 16-1 helping his new club, the Chicago Cubs, manage their first title of any kind since 1945.
Just last year, John Tudor of St. Louis looked like a flop after being acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Suddenly, Tudor was one of the best pitchers in baseball, helping the Cardinals come within one victory of winning the World Series.
This year, Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins will learn all about the long season. In fact, he already has. He opened the season by hitting 11 homers more quickly than anyone else in the majors. That was quite a feat for someone who had hit only four in his two-year major league career. Pitchers aren't dumb and they stopped throwing him balls he could hit out of the park. No one knows how many Puckett will hit this year. But in checking his total at the end of the season, keep in mind that he hit 11 in the first four weeks of the season.
The early weeks of this season found Scott Fletcher of the Texas Rangers hitting .338, among the leaders in the American League. Maybe he's found a new style. More likely, the relentless percentages of baseball will grind him closer to his lifetime average of .245.
What the long season does, is to provide hope. Day after day, you can always look to tommorow. Nobody wins a pennant in August. The Brooklyn Dodgers tried it in 1951. If the season had ended on Sept. 1, they would have succeeded. Instead, the long season gave broadcaster Russ Hodges a chance to scream some of the most famous words in baseball history: "The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant."
The Mets may win the pennant. The Mets may win the pennant. The Mets may win the pennant. The Mets may win the pennant. But they can't do it now. They'll have to do it more than 100 games from now.