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BASEBALL RECORDS : They're Meant to Be Broken and Savored

August 30, 1987|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

Even though the words have been changed a little, you probably know this one: "Where have you gone, Paul Molitor . . . ?"

Back to the dugout. Too bad you didn't pass Joe DiMaggio. You could have been famous. Maybe they would have named a drink after you. The Molitor cocktail, probably.

All during the Molitor monitor, while he was following the 46-year-old trail of grounds left by the Yankee Clipper, the former Mr. Coffee, we were all reminded of something: The records of baseball can be played at any speed.

On some of these records, you already know the words by heart. To understand all this, think of it as a game of word association.

DiMaggio .

Fifty-six game hitting streak.

Roger Maris .

Sixty-one home runs.

Don Larsen.

Perfect game in the World Series.

You can go on and on and on, but there's no need to sound like a broken record. Actually, that is just what baseball's records are good for, anyway. To be broken. This is sometimes confusing because there are so many of them out there just begging to be shattered.

For instance, did you know that Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Juan Samuel is taking aim at one of baseball's many obscure records, currently held by Leon Allen (Goose) Goslin, who spent most of his career with the Washington Senators.

Goslin finished five seasons with double figures in doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases. Samuel has done that four times, including this season, and if he makes it again in his career, Goose's record, as a solo, is cooked.

Actually, Samuel already holds what could be considered a major subdivision of that record. He has done his double-figure work in his first four seasons in the majors. The Goose didn't do that.

Don't you just love baseball? It's just that there are so darned many records that ranking the most important or the most difficult ones to break is really kind of hard. How hard is it? About as hard as, well, knocking in 190 runs in a season, as Hack Wilson did for the Cubs in 1930.

Pete Rose, who knows a few things about records, said there are only two unbreakables, and DiMaggio's streak isn't one of them. Untouchable, in his estimation, are Cy Young's 511 victories and Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played.

Baseball seems to be at least slightly batty about this degree-of-difficulty thing, but then a lot of sports are. Take golf, for instance. Somebody once asked Groucho Marx, an avid golfer, what he considered the most difficult shot in golf.

"I find it to be the hole-in-one," Groucho said.

The most difficult record in baseball? There may not be any one record.

Seymour Siwoff got into the record business 35 years ago when he founded the Elias Sports Bureau, which is considered the foremost compiler of baseball statistics. He said the whole issue is a matter of semantics.

"I don't know how to put a priority on hard records," Siwoff said. "I can't say what the most difficult is. Everything is difficult. We're talking about a skill. Ranking them in importance is what you have to say, not how difficult.

"So what are the most recognized records. That would be the home runs for a season. What's the most dramatic? Any kind of streak has drama to it.

"So the real issue with records is not which are the most difficult, but which are the ones that give the most recognition, the ones that are the most exciting, the ones which have the greatest continuity. The other day they played a game and there were no chances in the outfield. Well, so what?

"The most difficult record hasn't even been done yet. I don't even know what it is. But somebody may do something phenomenal, which is why sports has this enormous romance to it. The reason is because sports is drama, high drama. You go to the theater and you know how the ending is because somebody already wrote it, right? But sports is the ultimate theater. You know the ending only when the game ends. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes an unusual thing happens."

And when unusual things happen in succession, records are often made. Books are then printed to list the records. One of them is the Bill James Baseball Abstract, which was conceived in a garage in Lawrence, Kan., in 1977. Today, James' book has grown to be generally acknowledged as a primary source of statistical analysis, along with the Elias Baseball Analyst.

As is usually the case in the record business, James has had a lifelong love affair with baseball statistics.

"I don't pay attention to crime rate statistics, weather statistics, stock market statistics or the ebb and flow of literacy among football fans," James said. "Just baseball."

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