Leader Blues

Friday, March 19, 2010

SPORTS >> Upset tries, record feats create food for thought

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

By the time you read this, if anyone is reading this, Duke should have eliminated Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This was written before Friday nightís game and Iíll charitably guess the top-seeded Blue Devils beat the No. 16 Golden Lions by at least 25 points in the South Regional game. Anything less, and weíll call it a victory for UAPB.

This is Duke, after all, and UAPB is the school that has to play teams like Duke on the road to make money for the athletic department. The Lions started this season 0-11 while doing so.

UAPB beat Winthrop in the play-in game Tuesday to earn its No. 16 spot, and no 16th seed has ever beaten a No. 1 since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985.

A sportswriter friend of mine asked which would come first, a No. 16 beating a No. 1 in the tournament or the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series?

The Cub haters ó otherwise known as St. Louis Cardinals fans ó I know jumped in and expressed the hope they would see the basketball upset before seeing the Cubs win it all. I donít know why people hate the Cubs anyway; they make a little noise once in awhile but they have never hurt anybody while providing decades of laughs, sort of like Jerry Lewis.

Anyway, Iím afraid the Cub haters may be right. No. 16 seeds play a No. 1 four times every year while Chicago hasnít even been to a World Series since 1945. Thatís a guarantee of four upset chances annually while there is no guarantee the Cubs will even play for a championship.

Baseball is a long grind in which even the most talented teams need a few breaks like good health, minimal slumps and a home-field hop or two.

Yes, Iíd say the odds favor the basketball upset, not that Iíve actually figured the odds ó as a Cubs fan myself Iíve learned itís not wise to gamble. I still owe an old Air Force buddy a six-pack of something for losing a bet that the 1990 Cubs would finish ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

This whole discussion made me wonder what other sports feats will stand untouched for the remainder of this century, if not for all time.

In this past NFL season we saw how truly tough it is for a team to go undefeated. Cautious coaches who have locked up every home-field advantage are not going to risk the health of their best players, or their own jobs, in a meaningless late-season game, as the Indianapolis Colts ably demonstrated.

How about Joe DiMaggioís 56-game hitting streak? The only person to come close since DiMaggio set his mark with the Yankees in 1941 was Pete Rose, who hit safely in 44 games in 1978 and was the most passionately focused hitter since Ted Williams.

Yet Rose, whose streak came with the Cincinnati Reds, couldnít touch DiMaggio and fell a game short of the National League record of 45 games set by Willie Keeler in 1896-97.

I imagine, with todayís platoons of relief pitchers and the distractions of the modern game, Joltiní Joeís record is safe.

Speaking of Williams, will he be the last man to bat .400 or better for a season, as Williams did when he hit .406 with the Red Sox in 1941? Again, squadrons of relievers and the demands of todayís game make this a longshot, but if one of these marks is going to fall, I think Teddy Ballgameís average is the one.

When I looked at lists of some of baseballís most unapproachable records ó DiMaggioís streak, Ty Cobbís career .367 average, Cy Youngís 511 victories and 749 complete games ó Williamsí average didnít make the cut.

Many have flirted with .400, including active players like Ichiro Suzuki, Todd Helton, Joe Mauer and Chipper Jones, who all batted .365 or better.

But Iíll tell you what, if someone does bat .400, he wo3/19/10nít do it with the combination of guts and grit Williams showed on the last day of the 1941 season. He went into a doubleheader against Philadelphia right at .400, and then he went 4 for 5 with a home run and three singles in Game 1 to run his average to .404.

Williams could have gone to the bench for Game 2 and sat on his average, but instead he put it on the line, took his cuts, and went 2 for 3 with a double and a single to wind up at .406.

No guts no glory. The best hitter there ever was knew that.

Too bad he wasnít coaching the Colts this year.