WASHINGTON -- Sometimes, as the baseball season rounds Labor Day and heads toward home, the game is lucky enough to have one of its classic September plots on display.
Perhaps a great young hitter is threatening to become the first man since Ted Williams in 1941 to bat .400. Maybe some monstrous new slugger is trying to become the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the Triple Crown. If baseball is even luckier, perhaps some amazing hurler is on the verge of amassing a season that could be the greatest in history.
In its best years, baseball not only has September battles for Most Valuable Player awards and home run titles, it has bitter pennant races and ridiculously convoluted wild-card battles. Fans root for long-time rivals to stay locked together until the final week. Being greedy, we also want new underdog teams on the scene, preferably ones with bona fide chances to reach the World Series. Of course, if the Greatest Team of All Time were also in the picture -- battling against age and injury to keep its crown -- that wouldn't exactly make for bad theater either.
Batten down the hatches. Right now, baseball has it all. Each of the prime-time plots mentioned above is now in play. Todd Helton is batting .387. One scalding month and he's an immortal. Carlos Delgado is one home run, four RBI and three points out of the American League lead in the Triple Crown categories. Just one big game could put him in front for all three titles!
As a bonus, Delgado and Helton are exactly the kind of personalities that any sport needs: fan friendly. Delgado is one of the sport's most cheerful and responsible players -- a team captain who works hard but smiles big. So far, Helton has followed the recent baseball tradition -- established by Cal Ripken and maintained by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- of being an obliging adult during his time in the spotlight, not an infantile jerk.
Baseball has so many civilized stars these days that it's disconcerting: Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Piazza. Even Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield are finally all grown up and -- whaddayaknow -- they're pretty nice guys. With Albert Belle injured, it's hard to find a bad example to use to scare your children. Please, tell me it's a trend: gentleman jocks.
Odds are that Helton and Delgado won't quite reach the heights attained by Ty Cobb and Frank Robinson. But, when it comes to Pedro Martinez, all bets are off. Baring a complete loss of form, the Red Sox right-hander is about to post numbers that, relative to his era, put anything that Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson or Bob Gibson ever did in one season into the shade.
When Pedro pitches, watch. That's an order. He's Tiger with teammates.
In more than 40 years of following baseball, I've never seen anything like Martinez's 1.66 ERA. Compared to that one stat, even his 250-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio seems mortal. The second-best ERA in the American League is 3.57. Mike Mussina, at 3.85, may still end up second in the ERA "race." The entire league ERA is 4.96. Martinez's mark is one-third of the league ERA.
You think Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open by 15 shots and the British Open by eight was beyond imagination? What Martinez is doing -- over a full season -- is absolutely comparable. Except Martinez is doing it in a contact sport. Nobody tackles Tiger in his backswing or comes in spikes high as he putts.
Last week, after Martinez drilled the Tampa leadoff man, 25 Devil Rays came to the mound to discuss pitch selection with Pedro. After all 25 had grabbed a limb and made a wish, Martinez arose and retired the next 24 batters. He settled for a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts. The aftermath of the brawl clearly upset Martinez. On Labor Day, the Mariners actually scored a run on him. And only 11 fanned.
All summer baseball has been setting the stage to steal scenes in the fall. And not just with individual heroics. For the past two Septembers, the Yanks have been so dominant that pennant races and postseason chances seemed like an afterthought behind the Mac and Sammy Show. Now, while the Yankees are still logical favorites, they're not prohibitive ones. With Orlando Hernandez and Roger Clemens healthy and pitching well, with David Justice and Jose Canseco fortifying the lineup, nobody needs to pity New York just because they only have the sixth-best record in the game. But nobody needs to be terrified of them any more either.
One AL foe already looks like a heavyweight worthy of the Yankees: the young, broad-shouldered White Sox. There's no known way to pitch to Thomas, Maglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, Jose Valentin, Carlos Lee, Harold Baines and Ray Durham. Because these all-field hitters don't know where they're going to belt it until they see it. The Chisox have scored more runs at sea level than the Rockies, the National League scoring leader, have a mile up. That's scary.
The best division race going to the wire should be between the Braves and Mets. That's fair. Their seven-game '99 Championship Series was as venomously wonderful as any postseason series can be. Now, they're glaring at each other again -- separated by one game in the East. Yes, they still hate either other. Once again it's the Braves who seem slightly more poised and more confident, rather than merely cocky. Nobody made a better trading-deadline deal than the Braves for John Burkett. Talk about an aging control master made to order for a Leo Mazzone tutorial.
Perhaps the most enjoyable team to watch as it tries to summon itself for a great finish is the come-from-out-of-nowhere Giants. Let's have a back-to-school quiz. Name San Francisco's six-man rotation? Livan Hernandez, Shawn Estes, Russ Ortiz, Mark Gardner, Kirk Reuter and (no, you'll never get this one) Joe Nathan may never have a Cooperstown plaque among them. But they may spoil a World Series visit for a staff that does.
Get ready for the rumble toward October. Thirteen teams still make a case that they could be in the Series. And some long shots, like the Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Indians, really believe it. Will there be a batting title for Nomar? Or 350 strikeouts for Randy Johnson? Will Sosa go bonkers and approach 60 homers again? Can Darin Erstad get the 42 hits he needs for 250? This year, the regular-season finale figures to be an absolutely lovely mess. Let's get on with it.
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