Doubled off

O, BY THE WAY

Hitting .400, pennant pursuit won't last

On Chipper Jones and the Cubs

June 11, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

Two rare baseball phenomena are on course to happen so far this season, but, like asteroids that come hurtling into Earth's part of the galaxy, they are unlikely to hit the mark.

These two things intersect at 1060 West Addison in Chicago, where the Atlanta Braves are playing the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Chipper Jones, the Braves' superb third baseman, is hitting over .400 for the first third of the season, chasing an elusive mark last achieved by Ted Williams in 1941. And the Cubs, the most championship-famished franchise in the history of major American sports, have the best record in the major leagues, with hopes of capturing their first pennant since 1945 and even - maybe, perhaps - their first world championship since nineteen-aught-eight.

Jones' dogged pursuit of .400 is challenged by the simple mathematics of the task. Consider this: He was hitting .420 entering yesterday's game against the Cubs in 219 at-bats. Assuming Jones has, say, 550 at-bats this season and he hits a breathtaking .375 for the rest of the year, he would still fall a few percentage points short.

The task facing the Cubs is not nearly so daunting. They lead the National League Central with a winning percentage better than .600 and have one of the most productive lineups in the majors. Even if the Cubs are overtaken by the St. Louis Cardinals in their division, they would have to trip over their own feet to miss the playoffs as a wild card.

Ah, but there we have it.

It's not the arithmetic of the standings or even talent that gets in the Cubs' way. It's the Fates, karma, voodoo, whatever, that stand between Chicago and the prize.

But back to Jones. Since Williams hit .406 in 1941, three of the nearest misses have been the Kansas City Royals' George Brett (.390 in 1980), the Minnesota Twins' Rod Carew (.388 in 1977) and the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn (.394 in strike-shortened 1994).

(Williams also hit .388 in 1957).

Again, to illustrate the cruel math of .400 - Brett was last at that magical plateau in 1980 on Sept. 19. In the last 13 games, he hit safely in nine of them, and three of those were multihit games. Still, he fell 10 points short.

Carew was at .400 for the last time in 1977 in mid-May, and despite batting .500 for the better part of the last two weeks of the season, he still couldn't make up enough ground. In his big year, Gwynn was surging in August and was within a few hits of .400, but that was when the season died, so who knows what would have happened.

Jones has been remarkable so far. He hasn't been under .400 since April, but even the shortest slump could doom the chase.

Meanwhile, the Cubs have to fend off the ghosts of black cats on the field and billy goats and Bartmans in the stands. Their road isn't just about the physical challenge of 162 games and the playoffs, but also one that's dotted with psychological booby traps. And it doesn't matter that the current Cubs weren't even born when the 1969 collapse occurred, handing the New York Mets their opportunity to be Amazin'. The Cubbies are reminded of their dubious legacy daily in a town caught up in an odd love affair with the team's legendary futility.

Maybe this is the year both happen - Jones manages to hit .400 and the Cubs win the pennant.

But if that does occur, get a hard hat and keep your eyes on the sky for asteroids.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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