You know the feeling you get watching the steamier Greek tragedies, when dynasties are falling and sons are marrying their mothers and everyone is behaving badly and you are thinking: Really, things cannot go on like this. That is how March makes proper Americans feel. Life is vain, the world is a moral void, the universe is an empty shell. Then proper Americans look toward April, the horizon where the sun will rise. The sun is baseball.
Baltimore is the best place to watch the sunrise. I will explain why, after dealing with this disagreeable business: Peter Ueberroth must go. His reign as baseball commissioner is already six months old and the wicked Designated Hitter rule has not been repealed. Worse -- infinitely so -- he is talking about taking an opinion poll on the subject. The mind reels. The thought occurs: Death, where is thy sting?
Who needs polls to discover if Michelangelo is superior to Andy Warhol? Some judgments should be beyond the reach of majorities. Democracy has, I suppose, its place, but in baseball? Perhaps public opinion must influence government, but baseball should not be a plaything of that turbulent, hydra- headed monster: the mob. Do we submit theories of astrophysics to referenda? Surely even in an open society there are closed questions, and this is one: Should baseball be desecrated by the DH rule, which allows degenerate, football-esque specialization?
If Ueberroth's baseball bolshevism is the bad news, the good news is that our can-do country has gone and done it. It has produced a baseball book that almost contains all the information citizens ought to be required to master before being allowed to vote. The book is "The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst."
Do you have a Gibbonesque fascination with declines and falls? The book reveals that the 1984 White Sox were only the eighth team in 50 years to suffer a decline of 150 percentage points in their won-lost record compared with the immediate preceding season. In 1984 Cleveland extended to 24 its record for the most consecutive seasons (excluding the 1981 strike season) finishing more than 14 games behind the league or division leader. Before the 1984 Milwaukee Brewers did it, the last team to go in just two years from the best record in the league to the worst was during the Johnson administration. The time before that, Woodrow Wilson was in his first term.
AccDecSyn (Accelerated Decline Syndrome) exists when three criteria are satisfied: a team wins 10 fewer games in season X than in season X minus 1; it had a losing record in X minus 1; it had a winning record in X minus 2. The 1984 Giants suffered AccDecSyn.
But enough about incompetence. Let's go to Baltimore, where last Monday the Orioles, who will beat the Cubs in a six-game World Series, began what will be their 18th consecutive season over the .500 mark. Only the 1926-64 Yankees have done better, and no team has a better winning percentage (.565) over the last 29 seasons. Why are they so good? Hey, as Ring Lardner, born 100 years ago this spring, used to say, you could look it up.
The Elias book says Cal Ripken, the O's shortstop, has baseball's best on-base average (.452) when leading off an inning. With the opening game tied in the eighth inning on Monday, Ripken led off and got on base. Next came Eddie Murray. The book says that last year he batted .459, with a .838 slugging average, in late-inning pressure situations with runners on base. On Monday he drove in Ripken with a home run.
As Murray began his regal, relaxed lope around the bases (Prince Charles could take lessons from Murray about the business of kingly bearing), baseball's magical mix of science and serendipity was on display.
A 162-game season is, like life, a study in cumulation. Things tend to even out, and talent tells. Ripken and Murray are gods, but there are lots of lesser but useful talents, and in a town like Baltimore, where they make good steel and sausage and baseball, they know how to make use of scraps. Who led the American League last year in the percentage of runners driven in from third with fewer than two outs? Elias knows: Jim Dwyer, Baltimore.
Past performances give rise to averages, on which managers calculate probabilities about future performance. The more you study, the less surprised you are. But no matter how hard you study, you still are surprised agreeably often, and the surprises that come to the studious are especially delicious. This is true in baseball and in the lesser stuff that is the rest of life.