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This Season, the Possibilities Are Incredible

April 10, 1988|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

Let the amazement begin.

Perhaps the only thing we know about baseball in the 1980s is that we don't know anything. There's never been a decade remotely like this one for total absence of logical form.

Every season, predictions make no sense. Division champions almost never repeat--only two of 28 teams. That means the suicide rate among defenders is 93% in this decade. In fact, in one of baseball's most incredible statistics, exactly half of the division winners in the '80s have been losing teams the next year. Yes, 14 of 28, including six of the last eight.

Conversely, clubs routinely win flags the season after being awful. Already in the '80s, 11 teams have come from the second division or below .500 to reach the playoffs.

No record is safe. A rookie like Mark McGwire might hit 49 home runs. A 20-year-old like Dwight Gooden might have a 1.53 earned-run average. Rickey Henderson might steal 130 bases, while Vince Coleman might steal more than 100 bases in each of his first three seasons. A 225-pound shortstop might not miss an inning for almost six consecutive years--until his father, the manager, benches him.

Could a kid pitcher strike out 20 men in a game and finish 20 games over .500 in the same year? Roger Clemens could; and he could back it up with another Cy Young Award. A batter like George Brett might hit .390, then suddenly discover that a youngster who'd worshipped him named Wade Boggs would surpass him--building a career average of .354 after six seasons, including four silver bats.

Who dreamed a player might hit 50 homers and steal 50 bases? Yet few doubt that Eric Davis might do it someday. Could McGwire and his teammates Jose Canseco and Dave Parker hit more home runs than any trio in history? Don't tell them they can't, since they weigh in together at more than 700 pounds.

These days, no team is too lousy to find itself in the World Series. And then win. You can be outscored for the entire season and wake up Christmas morning as a world champion. Ask the Twins. Can a grumpy rookie manager, who wears sunglasses indoors, accomplish in one season what Gene Mauch couldn't do in 26--win a pennant. Darn right. And grab a Series, too. That is, if he's Tom Kelly, whom Don Baylor calls, "One of the weirdest people I've ever met in baseball."

No postseason deficit is too steep in this wacko era. Trailing in the playoffs or Series by 2-0 in games, or even 3-1, hardly seems worthy of notice. In the '80s, more teams have won from that position than have lost. You see, what was once miraculous is now the rule. No September lead is safe, either. If the Toronto Blue Jays need to lose their last seven games to blow a division flag, then watch out below; the Phillies have company now.

We've reached the point where no player is too old to go on forever and break the-Lord-knows-what career mark. Pete Rose can catch Ty Cobb in hits. Don Sutton, Phil Niekro and, who knows, maybe even old rebuilt Tommy John, can win 300 games. If he keeps eating his vegetables and losing close games, Nolan Ryan might yet strike out 5,000 batters and finish under .500 lifetime. How could a 37-year-old catcher hit 37 homers? Carlton Fisk did it; now, at 41, he's still squatting. Creaky Bob Boone may not hold the all-time record for games caught for very long.

Except for a couple of dozen perennials--like the incredibly underrated Mike Schmidt, who's hit 35 homers in 11 of the last 14 seasons--most players have more trouble producing consistent year-to-year statistics than at any time in history. Rick Sutcliffe might be pitcher of the decade in a symbolic sense. How do you have sequential seasons of 17-10, 3-9, 2-2, 14-8, 17-11, 20-6, 8-8, 5-14, 18-10? Go on, explain it. Dare ya.

Each season brings a new wave of stupefyingly talented phenoms, half of whom burn out or level out over the next couple of years. Goodby, Storm Davis. Hello, Don Mattingly, who's proved he really is the next Stan Musial. Except Musial never homered in eight straight games or had six grand slams in a year as The Don did in '87.

Law of Improbability Rules

Every new campaign brings with it players of such improbable heroism that we stop wondering where the magic might end. If Dennis Lamp can go 11-0 to help the Blue Jays win a division, if Aurelio Lopez can be 10-1 for a Tiger titlist, then what player--what invisible Buddy Biancalana--is so humble that we could forbid him from dreaming?

Baseball no longer conforms to any laws--except those of hindsight. No age in baseball history ever needed the "Elias Analyst" or the "Bill James Abstract" more. Only in the rear-view window, does everything make sense. Well, a little sense. Or, at least, no longer seem utterly impossible. For instance, who thought baseball would ever see a season when 51 players hit 20 or more home runs and seven teams would have 190 or more homers. Yeah, and that's just in the American League last year.

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