Sunday, August 05, 2007

One to Go

A television armed with picture in picture, trips to the ballpark, a laptop tuned to MLB TV, live Internet gamecasts, a cell phone ready to dial, and of course the trusty AM-FM tuner - all in the name of baseball history. To honestly say, “I saw Bonds hit 756”, or 7 years down line when A-Rod chases Bonds’ all-time homerun record, to remember watching Rodriguez’ milestone 500th blast live, or waiting for Tom Glavine’s reaction as he emerges from the dugout following the final out of win 300.

No matter where you stand on the steroid issue affecting the legitimacy of Bonds’ pending record, even the casual observer tunes in anticipating history. Cheer or boo A-Rod in the past, put postseason failures and big money contracts aside to appreciate possibly the most talented baseball player of this, or any, generation reach the benchmark for power hitters at a younger age than any player ever, including the Sultan of Swat and alleged Sultan of Shot. Similar to his days in Atlanta, playing wingman to Madduz and Smoltz, Glavine flies under the radar amid the fascination with homeruns. The classy, dignified lefty, receives less fanfare than his record chasing brethren, but will hold no less exclusive place in history, possibly becoming the last pitcher in this generation to win 300.

Never before has baseball witnessed three major milestones on the same day. Frank Thomas and Craig Biggio pulled a double earlier this season, Gwynn, Boggs, and McGwire went back-to-back-to-back days a decade ago. On Tuesday night, baseball fans scrambled to catch every at-bat and every pitch, while all three, unsuccessfully chased history. If that excitement did not get the blood flowing, Tuesday also marked the non-waiver trade deadline. For one day, the information overload fans deal with in the digital age could not keep up with the news and stories. Without sounding too giddy and corny, baseball is great.

At the same time, the drama is all about stats, and not at all about stats. Unlike any other sport, statistics drive baseball, and the milestones signify reaching a specific number, forever immortalized in baseball annals. More than stats, these chases are about the game, the history, the moment. Perhaps thanks to the controversy, everyone seems more intrigued to see what happens when Bonds hits the magical 756.

Location remains a major storyline. Will it take place in San Francisco, or on the road? Prevailing opinion says Bonds needs to hit the record-breaker at home to avoid a negative historic moment, some analysts go as far as saying the Giants, and possibly even MLB, will rig the proceedings to avoid it occurring on the road. Associating a negative fan reaction to a highlight clip bound to appear on highlights for years to come must scare baseball, but benching Bonds in road games chews at the integrity of the game. With division rivals San Diego, Los Angeles, and Arizona in a heated pennant race, removing the Giants best hitter for select games unfairly sways the balance of power. Thankfully, Bonds started each road game thus far.

Breaking the record away from San Francisco would only intensify the drama. Will the fans boo, will anyone throw debris on the field or try running on the field, and do the opposing players shake his hand while rounding the bases ala a not yet indicted Mark McGwire in 1998 after smashing Maris’ single season homerun record, more storylines than the average soap opera.

Even simple details sound intriguing. How will Bonds react, in the batters box, rounding the bases, and crossing the plate? Will teammates mob him at home plate, or have a subdued reaction? What single moment will

A-Rod elicits feelings of jealousy, thanks to his enormous contract, and occasional outright dislike, with his penchant to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and to underperform in clutch situations. Listen to the Yankee Stadium crowd each time Rodriguez comes to bat, any question fans put all feelings aside in favor of 500? Without stopping to realize it, we have the privilege of watching one of the great all-around baseball players ever. Number 500 will generate October-like electricity at the Stadium, and send chills up your spine no matter where you are.

The onset of small ballparks, watered down pitching, and other notable factors dramatically increasing power numbers, and three other active players bearing down on 500 homeruns, jeopardize the exclusivity of the club going forward. Less than a decade down the road 500 homeruns may not remain the benchmark for elite power hitters, or lead to automatic hall of fame entry. While Jim Thome chasing 500 brings along a debate on the merits of the magic number, A-Rod is different. Rodriguez can arguably retire as one of the top five players of all-time, and is on pace, yes I hate that phrase, to shatter Bonds’ final number. If a 22 member fraternity was not exclusive enough, having turned 32 years old last week, A-Rod will become the youngest to gain entry, the best of the best.

Despite a recent spate of 300-game winners, the species threatens to go extinct as we embark on the generation of pitch counts, specialized relief pitchers, and five man rotations. Glavine will reach the milestone with the least publicity and notoriety of almost any pitcher. He lacks the consecutive Cy Young’s and multiple years of shear dominance of Maddux, and the strikeouts and drama surrounding Roger Clemens, the only two pitchers to reach the achievement in the past 27 years.

Never dominating, rarely, if ever, considered the best pitcher on his own team, never mind the league, Glavine stayed under the radar relying on a perfect change-up, impeccable pitch location, and unmatched consistency, to keep batters off balance for over twenty years. The milestone win will not be a scintillating 15 strikeout performance, or a one-hit gem, expect another quality start in a long line of them, 6 or 7 IP, maybe 1 or 2 earned runs, and lots of frustrated hitters wondering how they could not hit an 80-85 mph fastball.

The model of stability, Glavine started at least 29 games each season since 1988, except the strike-shortened year, posting an ERA under four in all but three of those seasons, and collecting two Cy Young awards. One edge Glavine has over both Bonds and A-Rod, an unforgettable clutch playoff performance and World Series ring. The 1995 World Series MVP stifled Cleveland in Game 6, twirling a gem for the ages, a one-hit shutout over eight innings in the 1-0 clinching victory.

Unlike Bonds and A-Rod, barring the rare complete game, Glavine will not even be on the field when he officially reaches the milestone. The homerun can happen at any moment, on any given pitch, blink and you miss it. The suspense for Glavine’s win will build over nine innings, the level of drama depending on the score, and as if the lefty needed the reminder, his teammates need to help. Tuesday night Glavine departed with 300 in sight, before Guillermo Mota, convicted steroid user, blew the lead. A-Rod and Bonds control their fate, at least when pitchers challenge them. Where else are paths to achievement within the same sport so divergent.

Steeped in history and nostalgia, every new major moment in baseball presents interesting links to the past. Surrounded by controversy, including the debate on Commissioner Selig’s attendance, and the legitimacy of the record in the so-called Steroid Era, Bonds hitting 755 or 756 during Hall of Fame weekend, where two immortal, classy players who signify everything right with baseball entered Copperstown, would have created a major distraction and PR nightmare for baseball. With no control over the situation, it worked out, no homerun, all eyes remaining on Copperstown; baseball always seems to work out.

Bonds had an opportunity to create great historical symmetry with Aaron’s record breaker, off Al Downing of the Dodgers with legendary Vin Scully broadcasting the game. Three games in LA, but no homeruns, an ironic twist of fate missed. Wherever, and whenever Bonds hits the next two homeruns, a record broken only once in over 75 years stands to fall, put that in historical perspective.

In New York, if A-Rod connects during the homestand, he becomes the first to reach 500 at Yankee Stadium, the unofficial baseball cathedral, since Mickey Mantle in 1967, and becomes only the third to achieve the milestone in Yankee pinstripes, joining Mantle and Ruth.

Baseball holds a special place in public lore, forever America’s favorite past time. While extra hype surrounds these historical chases, the purity of the game shines through. Everything circles back to the crack of the bat, the sweet swing followed by the reaction in the batters box and an exhilarating trot around the bases, officiating the milestone by touching the plate, followed by teammate reception, and the curtain call to thank the fans. For Glavine, the slow walk off the mound after handing the ball the bullpen, watching his reaction during the final agonizing outs, and then greeting his teammates and the pitcher who finished off his 300th win. What single moment will stand in history, the snapshot forever immortalized? How will the broadcaster blessed with the opportunity call the historical moment, knowing everyone will listen to the replay forever? Many questions, tons of intrigue, uncontrollable anticipation – a special time that no other sport can duplicate, proving again why baseball is the greatest sport.


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