All season long, Luis Arraez had been chasing baseball immortals.
His batting average hovered around the vaunted .400 average, a standard not held in a major league season since Ted Williams in 1941.
Then, in mid-June, Arraez suddenly went three no-hitters. Three games! To him, that amounted to a catastrophic drought. His average dropped to .378.
Arraez, 26, responded enthusiastically. Against Washington, he went 5-for-5. Against Toronto, five times up, five more hits. He kept up the hit list during last weekend’s series against Pittsburgh.
Returning to the .400 chase, Arraez left.
Changes to Major League Baseball’s rules, intended to make the game faster and better, dominated the early-season narrative. But Arraez has become a hero in the making, one who has begun to carve out a season for history.
He hits singles and soft drives in the nearly empty stadium in Miami and is little known. But if he stays above .400 after the All-Star break, his status will change. The pressure will mount with each at-bat, as it did with Williams, even in an era that relied on radio broadcasts and slow-moving newspapers to tell the story.
In today’s world, every swing will be digitized, instantly broadcast around the world, and scrutinized by commentators and fans. Arraez will be known well beyond the realm of baseball fans.
Arraez, a 5-foot-10-inch Venezuelan, is chasing more than one game from Williams, who finished that ’41 season with a .406 average. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, which had been in place since the 19th century. No player has finished a season batting .400 or higher since Major League Baseball became an integrated game.
Chasing records has a magnetic way of captivating and drawing us in. It always will, always has.
Consider the ancient Greeks. There were no clocks or chronometers in sixth-century BC Athens. C., but the Greeks kept track of the unprecedented number of victories achieved by athletes like Milo of Crotona, a wrestler who won gold medals in six Olympic Games.
And just as we are today, the ancient Greeks were obsessed with reputation.
“Imagine a world without Twitter, newspaper or ‘SportsCenter’ highlights,” said David Lunt, associate professor of history at Southern Utah University. “You just have these reputations, these stories that people tell about you. “Oh my gosh, you wouldn’t believe what this amazing athlete did.” And they came up with different ways to commemorate that.”
Poems were created, songs were commissioned, and statues were erected. This is how everyone knew that an athlete had set the limits of performance.
Some things change over time, others don’t. Today, record breakers are feted with multi-million dollar careers, hundreds of millions of social media followers and, for a lucky few like Willie Mays and Wayne Gretzky, a statue in front of a stadium.
In February, a LeBron James jump shot toppled one of basketball’s biggest and most talked about milestones: the most points scored in an NBA career (38,387), a record held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar since 1985 and which for a long time it was considered unbeatable.
Honoring Abdul-Jabbar allows one to remember other athletic masters and the records they hold.
Wilt Chamberlain, with his 100-point game, the most scored in the NBA
Bill Russell, with his 11 NBA titles, the most ever won by a player in the league.
Milestones have a certain kind of magic. They exist on a continuum, honoring unparalleled excellence while drawing future generations into the chase.
So it is that Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles evokes the poignant pursuit of Serena Williams who stalled at 23, which evokes Novak Djokovic, who won his 23rd Slam event at the French Open this year. month and could match Court at Wimbledon.
There are records that seem second to none, only to be knocked over by the wrecking ball of a single atypical, moving and surprising performance. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Bob Beamon set a record in the long jump, jumping nearly two feet clear of the previous world’s best.
Then in 1991 came Mike Powell, who took the record by jumping 29 feet 4½ inches, two inches beyond Beamon.
It’s been 32 years and Powell’s performance is still the standard. For now.
Then there are the milestones that aren’t quite records but have come to seem so.
When the subject of the elusive .If the 400 mark appears, you’d be forgiven for thinking Williams was not only the last to reach that average, but the first. However, you would be wrong. Dozens of major leaguers, including Ty Cobb, reached that standard before Williams.
But the great leagues of Williams and Cobb, and therefore their records, will forever be tainted by the scourge of racism. That’s why, if Arraez continues his hot streak and hits .400 or better on the season, he should be hailed as the first major leaguer to truly reach that mark: baseball immortal.
Do you remember Milo of Crotona? It was said that he had gone to war with the olive wreaths he had won for his Olympic records, along with a lion skin and a club that made him look like Hercules.
One important detail in that story is probably a metaphor, said Heather Reid, a philosophy professor who studies the ancient Greeks and their relationship to sports. The wrestling champion wasn’t likely to wear his Olympic crowns, which in ancient times were made of olive branches for a reason: They disintegrated, a nod to the fleeting nature of life.
And that points to a fundamental connection between ancient and modern sports. Then as now, the records represent a “study of the limits of human excellence,” as Reid suggested.
Mortals push the limits, which makes them seem like gods for a while. Until someone arrives to knock them off the pedestal. That’s why we look.
During last weekend’s series against Pittsburgh, Arraez’s average rose to .401 as he threw pitch after pitch for singles and even hit his third home run of the season. A 4-1 Sunday put him back at .399.
If he can get past the season’s blackouts and finish above .400, it’s time to put up a statue in front of Miami Stadium. Plus a poem, a song, and maybe an olive wreath.