Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 Notes of a Former Couch Potato 

October 5, 2004 
Major-league baseball is coming back to Washington, but I’m afraid I no longer qualify as a baseball fan. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.I haven’t been to a big-league game or even a Little League game in several years, and I seldom watch one on television unless it’s the playoffs or the World Series.

Actually, I don’t believe in playoffs. They almost ensure that the best teams won’t be in the Series. We used to have two leagues of 8 teams, and the best teams from both leagues met in an epic October showdown for the world championship. Now we have 30 teams in heaven-knows-how-many divisions playing in what amounts to a postseason tournament, in which a “wild-card” team that didn’t even lead its division can win by a fluke.

No single baseball game can be called an “upset,” since it’s not unusual for the last-place team to beat the first-place team on a given day. This uncertainty makes the game as exciting as it is, and it’s also the reason for 162-game seasons to sift out the flukes and establish overall superiority. All that is undone by short playoffs, which maximize the role of chance. And may stretch the season into November.

When I fell asleep and missed the climax of one of the most exciting games of all time, the seventh game of the World Series three years ago, when Arizona beat the Yankees, I knew my career was over. It was finally time to hang up my spikes as a couch potato.

Talk about embarrassing. I woke up in the morning in panicky curiosity. I had to read the morning paper to find out who won, and learned I’d missed an incredibly dramatic ending in the bottom of the ninth.

You know you’re getting up there when you regard couch potatoes as kids. I just don’t have that kind of energy anymore. I’ve passed the torch to a new generation.

[Breaker quote: The season in stats]I do have one residual habit: checking the statistics. And the 2004 season has been rich in stats. Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling all had excellent seasons, racking up strikeouts as of old while giving up few walks and runs. Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins pitched well enough to invite comparison with Sandy Koufax.

Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners hit .372, leading both leagues, while breaking George Sisler’s 84-year-old season record for hits with 262. Of course Sisler set his record in a shorter season, with a .408 batting average, but Suzuki’s feat is still remarkable.

Until you compare it with that of Barry Bonds. Bonds is the most unloved baseball titan since Ty Cobb, but it would be grudging to deny that he’s what Ted Williams aspired to be: the greatest hitter who ever lived. National League pitchers eloquently attested his stature by giving him nearly as many walks (about half of them intentional) as Suzuki had hits: 235, another new record. His batting average, a league-leading .362, wasn’t far below Suzuki’s.

But here the statistical gap becomes astounding. Suzuki’s on-base average was .414. Bonds’s was .610. Suzuki whacks singles; Bonds slams space shots. Suzuki hit 8 home runs, barely one per hundred at-bats; Bonds had 45, about one per nine times at bat.

Suzuki is a great contact hitter who struck out only 63 times; Bonds fanned only 41 times, becoming one of the few hitters since 1950 to play a full season with more homers than strikeouts. Joe DiMaggio did it seven times, Yogi Berra five. (Joe’s brother Vince, on the other hand, used to lead the league in strikeouts.)

Bonds is both a great power hitter and a great contact hitter. He has reached a unique level: Walking him is simply the rational thing to do. If you give him anything in the strike zone, the odds are he’ll hurt you. Suzuki is challenging; Bonds is terrifying. With more than 700 career home runs, he is almost sure to break Hank Aaron’s lifetime record. At the age of 40, Bonds has just finished a season that in some ways excels any year any other hitter has had at any age.

An amusing statistical footnote was added to the season when one Bonds record was smashed: Adam Dunn of the Cincinnati Reds whiffed 195 times, surpassing Barry’s father Bobby Bonds’s mark of 189, set in 1970. Well, at least the Bonds family doesn’t monopolize the batting records now.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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