The baseball world is agog over George Brett's quest to bat .400, as well it should be. Why? Because this statistic belongs with those other hard-to-attain baseball milestones that have taken on a mythical quality.
For pitchers, winning 30 games is the ultimate, almost superhuman achievement; for sluggers it's smashing 60 home runs; and for pure hitters it's batting .400.
Of these, the latter has remained untouchable for the longest period. Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968 and Roger Maris stroked 61 home runs in 1961, but not since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941 has anyone hit .400.
Rod Carew, a seven-time American League battng champion, came closer than anyone else three reasons ago with a .388 average. Up until this year, the best Brett, a third baseman for the Kansas City Royals, had ever batted was .333 in 1976, when he collected three hits on the season's last day to edge out teammate Hal McRae by a percentage point for the league hitting crown.
That's the kind of finish George hopes for again, since his preference is to catch fire at the end and overtake the .400 mark rather than be there and have to protect it.
The pressure can only increase as the ".400 watch," and all the news media attention accompanying it, continue. Brett may have felt this the other night when his 30- game hitting streak was broken and his average "dipped" to .401. For what it's worth, though, Carew's average was down to .374 at about this time in 1977. National League and the DH
The National League has steadfastly refused to adopt the designated-hitter rule, which the American League dreamed up in 1973. But now the senior circuit appears to be softening in its stance, and may soon have DHs of its own.
That was the shocking news to emerge from last week's major league meetings, where National League clubs barely voted down adoption of the DH rule by a 5-4 margin, with three clubs abstaining. Just a year ago the idea of using designated hitters had been canned 10-2.
One wonders about this sudden shift. Are NL team owners beginning to buy the American League's sales pitch that designated hitters, who bat for the pitchers, bring more offense to the game, thereby making it more interesting and appealing? Or is the concern really one about migration of aging stars to the American League, which can leave them on the bench until it's time to bat? (Even as a DH, a player of Hank Aaron's stature can be a valuable box office attraction.) Then again, maybe the National League isn't quite as sure as it once was that the strategies involved in the DH-less game are all they're cracked up to be.
The DH rule has hardly ruined baseball, as some baseball purists once feared it would, but on the other hand, it's never been an improvement, either, based on attendance figures. New York Times columnist Red Smith points out that even after the American League adopted the DH, AL attendance figures continued to lag behind those in the National League. Eventually, however, overall AL attendance (though not average club attendance) moved ahead when the American League expanded to 14 teams with the addition of Seattle and Toronto. The NL, meanwhile, stood pat with 12 entries.