Hitting, or the lack of it, may well be the hardest thing to explain about major league baseball. The statement most often made by managers and players when a team is pounding the ball is that hitting is contagious. Or, if a team suddenly stops hitting, that slumps are contagious. Some managers handle the latter problem by ordering extra batting practice, while others become so frustrated that they will actually suspend batting practice for a day. In either case, the strategy seldom works.
What happened to the Los Angeles Dodger offense recently is a classic example of a situation that has replayed itself many times over the years on many clubs. The Dodgers lost seven straight games in which they could not beg, borrow, or rent a base hit that would have turned defeat into victory. During that stretch both the first place San Diego Padres and the Atlanta Braves began to build a wall between themselves and their chief rival in the NL West. Would June come to be remembered as the month the Dodgers took themselves out of the pennant race?
But Los Angeles, after trailing the Reds 6-2, scored six runs in the last three innings to break the streak and salvage the finale of a three-game series in Cincinnati. Then the Dodgers went into Atlanta and swept the Braves. The team that couldn't hit scored 34 runs in four games, including four home runs in its final appearance against the Braves.
Explain it? You might as well try to explain the infield fly rule to the guy who runs Ivan's Igloo in Upper Siberia. Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda's reaction is to attack another plate of linguine.
However, hitting probably ranks no better than third on Lasorda's list of improvements to be made if the Dodgers are to remain in the race. So far Tommy's bullpen has consisted of Tom Niedenfuer (eight saves and a 1.89 ERA) and a cast of thousands. If LA doesn't find someone soon, preferably a left-hander to complement the right-handed Niedenfuer, it will be playing the months of August and September for the financial benefit of the airlines. The Dodgers also have to be concerned with a quirk in the National League schedule that has them at home, after the July 10 All-Star break, for only 28 of their final 74 games. What the managers are saying
* ''Most fans have a false idea about what it takes to make the big leagues, '' explained Manager Doug Radar of the Texas Rangers. ''They think you have to be able to do a lot of things well. Listen, if you can do one thing well, like hit or come in late in a game and provide more defense than the guy you're replacing, you can sometimes stay in the bigs for years. As a matter of fact, the Baltimore Orioles have turned this idea into a system that wins pennants. Aside from its pitching, Baltimore's other personnel isn't nearly as good as Detroit's or Toronto's, but by platooning around their anchor people like shortstop Cal Ripken, first baseman Eddie Murray, and catcher Rick Dempsey, the Orioles are always in there fighting for first place.''
* ''The best American League rookie I've seen so far this season is first baseman Alvin Davis of the Seattle Mariners,'' said Manager Dick Howser of the Kansas City Royals. ''I've had my pitchers work on Davis in several different ways and he doesn't seem to have a weakness.'' Asked about his team's current win one, lose two situation, Howser replied: ''I'm afraid it's going to stay that way unless we start scoring more runs. But my long-range feeling is that our situation is going to improve.''
* From Manager Joe Torre of the Atlanta Braves on trends in baseball: ''There aren't any. Well, I take that back. It used to be that if a kid could hit but didn't carry much of a glove, a manager would find a place somewhere in his lineup to hide him on defense. Today, with so many teams playing on artificial surfaces where you need speed to get to the ball, scouts will sign almost any prospect who can run. They want that speed on defense so badly that they are willing to gamble that somebody in their organization can teach the kid to hit.''
* The following was taken bits and pieces from former Baltimore manager, Earl Weaver's new book (''Weaver on Strategy,'' published by Macmillan): ''The way to win is with pitching and three-run homers. . . Pitching is the most important, most delicate, and most challenging part of the game. . . The home run makes managing simple. Nothing can go wrong. The power of the home run is so elementary that I fail to comprehend why people try to outsmart the game in other ways. . . Forget about the bunt, unless there is no other choice. There are only three outs per inning. Give one away and you are making everything harder for yourself.'' Weaver is probably right. Earl did finish either first or second 13 times in the 15 years he spent as manager of the Orioles. Facts and figures on umpires
What would happen if an umpiring crew, for any reason, failed to show up for a major league game? It happened many years ago in Cincinnati, which also happened to be the home of former National League ump Larry Goetz, who wasn't scheduled to leave on assignment until the next day. When someone remembered that Goetz might be puttering around his garden, they put in a telephone call to Larry and what could have been a major problem behind home plate was solved. Players from the two teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Reds, worked the bases while Goetz called balls and strikes.
It is estimated that during a nine-inning game the plate umpire calls approximately 290 pitches while the base umpires are involved with approxiamtely 49 safe or out decisions. The plate umpire can also count on being hit hard either by a pitched ball or a foul tip on an average of twice a game. While the half-swing is often said to be an umpire's toughest call, the one they don't talk about is when a sliding runner and the ball arrive at the base at the same time and the umpire's view is blocked. Frankly, they estimate such calls, protecting their decision by reacting instantly and in a voice as close to thunder as they can make it. Piniella on deck? Reggie's woes
* There is wide speculation that outfielder Lou Piniella's retirement as a player with the New York Yankees was effected so that Piniella will be free to replace Yogi Berra as manager during the July All-Star break. Meanwhile Lou will continue as the Yankees' batting instructor as well as taking on the additional duties of first-base coach.
* Reggie Jackson, who has struggled at bat all year for the California Angels despite 11 home runs, had his $65,000 customized Porsche 930 stolen from in front of a Newport Beach restaurant recently. Jackson has been offering a $1000 no-questions-asked reward for its return. It's not that Reggie doesn't have other vehicles; actually he collects old and exotic cars and owns about 56. But this particular Porsche is painted to specs and has had its interior replaced by fabric that matches Jackson's favorite Rolls Royce.