DENVER — It was a striking, even nostalgic tableau here earlier this week during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Colorado Rockies.
The Rockies' first baseman, Todd Helton, in the grips of a dramatic attempt to become the first major leaguer to hit .400 or more since Ted Williams batted .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941, had just blooped a single to center field. He was standing on first visiting with Braves' first baseman Andres Galarraga.
They laughed. Laughing is great when life is grand and your average is .400.
It was a moment in time. That's because Galarraga, arguably the most popular of the former Rockies, made a similarly serious run at .400 just seven summers ago when he was Colorado's first baseman.
So Galarraga is one of the very few to truly understand the perils and the pressures. He finished 1993 hitting a brilliant .370 but light years below .400.
As the two stood there in the dazzling beauty of a perfect summer evening at Coors Field, baseball was at its best.
It was today challenging yesterday. It was the whippersnapper (Helton is only in his third full year as a big leaguer) threatening the old master. Baseball is never better than when its past and its future come together as one. Conventional wisdom, although often wrong, is that Helton won't be hitting .400 at season end. The reason, of course, is that thousands have tried since 1941 and all have fallen short. It's not that it can't happen but that it hasn't happened.
Asked about hitting .400 for the year, Helton says, "That's something I won't think about until the season is over."
A former quarterback for the University of Tennessee football team, Helton has the highest batting average for this late in the season since Kansas City star George Brett was at .400 in September 1980. Brett finished at .390. In 1994, San Diego's Tony Gwynn hit .394, the closest ever to Williams's .406.
Hitting .400 - which means averaging four hits for every 10 attempts - was not a big deal for decades. A number of players did it several times, including Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, and Jesse Burkett. In 1894, Hugh Duffy hit .438 for Boston.
Indeed, in Williams's stunning summer of 1941, it had been only 11 years since the Giants' Bill Terry hit .401.
Why a difficult but reachable goal over decades became an unconquerable mountain is interesting. Most insiders primarily attribute the old-timers' acumen to playing only day games, when the ball is far easier to see than at night.
Too, time was a pitcher generally pitched nine innings, and so the hitters could settle in and have a clear idea of what he was throwing. Today, pitching is highly specialized, with starting pitchers counted on for only five or six innings, followed by an array of specialists, including a middle man, a set-up man, and a closer. And historic parks like Ebbets Field, Sportsman's Park, and the Polo Grounds were extremely hitter friendly.
Conversely, today's athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger. They have the advantage of substantially better diets, training facilities, and equipment. And with many more teams playing, the pitching has become dreadfully diluted. Go figure.
Some critics attribute Helton's success to playing in Denver, where altitude does put added zip into the ball. But while he is hitting .432 at home, he's also hitting a strapping .360 on the road. And a stinging single up the middle like the one he blasted against the Braves in the first inning the other night is a stinging single anywhere.
However, Helton has many swings of the bat to go before anyone compares him with Williams. For openers, Williams missed 4-1/2 seasons in his prime when he was off fighting two of his nation's wars. He was American League batting champ six times. He's one of only 15 players to hit more than 500 home runs - and to add to the perfect ending, he homered his last time at bat, in 1960.
Most significant, Williams was hitting .39955 going into '41's season-ending double-header against the A's. If he hadn't played, the percentage would have been rounded up to .400. He insisted on playing, risking failure. He had six hits in eight tries, including a homer, to end at .406.
There's a message there for Todd Helton, and sportsmen everywhere.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society