FOR those connoisseurs whose summer is enhanced by the crack of baseballs being battered against and over outfield walls, this has been a splendidly pleasant season.
This year's menu has offered a hitting banquet, full of variety and spice.
As an appetizer, a salad of singles, a soup bowl full od doubles and perhaps even a trifle of triples, baseball has offered up a choice between Keith Hernandez and George Brett -- two underpraised and undernoticed masters of the Rod Carew school of all-fields hitting.
To the question of who makes the consistently hardest contact in the major leagues, the answer is probably Brett of Kansas City, who leads the game in hits. With the benefit of only 16 homers, Brett is second in baseball in extra-base hits, thanks to 36 doubles and 16 triples. He could well become the first player since Willie Mays in 1957 to have at least 20 doubles, triples and homers in the same year.
If Brett, a former batting champ, is still slightly underrated, then Hernandez, the slick first baseman of St. Louis, is by far the least-appreciated player of '79.
The 25-year-old not only leads the National League in hitting (.346) but he also lead the league in what is perhaps the game's most fundamental, bedrock offensive statistic: runs produced (180).
For the main course in our batting feast, we have the option of selecting lion or gorilla. That is to say, we can prefer leonine slugger Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia or Dave (King Kong) Kingman of Chicago.
In baseball history, one league has produced a pair of 50-homer men in the same season on three occasions -- Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54) in '61, Ralph Kiner (51) and Johnny Mize (51) in '47, and Hank Greenberg (58) and Jimmy Foxx (50) in '38.
Kingman, with 41 homers, and Schmidt, with 39, are on schedule to reach the 50s in what promises to be one of the best home-run title fights in history. Kingman and Schmidt have gone at it twice before and neither one wilted. Schmidt won both times, 38-37 in '76 and 38-36 in '75.
Since a fine old wine is necessary for such a gourmet meal, let us go to the Hall of Fame cellar and examine two of the sport's finest 3,000-hit vintages -- that full-bodied Carl Yastrzemski red and the drier, more subtle, Lou Brock white.
Watching Brock return from an ignominious '78 season to get his 3,000th hit and then retire is enough to refresh any jaded palate. Seeing Yastrzemski approach his 3,000th, while his ankles and calves must be taped so tightly that his feet are numb, is enough to make us dizzy with the ambiguity of fame and the merciless price that it exacts.
Dessert, of course, should be a surprise -- and a glorious one that, if we are lucky, surpasses any other dish.
It is now becoming progressively more clear that the hitting highlight of '79 will not be the stylish classicism of Brett and Hernandez, nor the beastly pleasures of drooling over Kingman and Schmidt, nor even the nostalgia of Yaz and Brock.
In its simplest terms, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox are engaged in something that is unique in baseball history.
Never before have two hitters battled each other nip-and-tuck, head-to-head in all three Triple Crown categories -- batting average, home runs and RBI. As a bonus, they are Boston Red Sox teammates and bat three-four in the lineup.
Since the lively ball era began in 1920 and home runs became significant and frequent, the Triple Crown has been won 11 times. Many times, a pair of players have come down to the wire in close races in two of the three areas, but never in all three.
At present, Lynn and Rice stand one-two in the American League in batting (.347 to .335) and homers (36 to 33). The Bosox duo is second and third in RBI behind California's Don Baylor who has 118. However, Lynn, with 106, and Rice, with 102, have both been on hot streaks while the notoriously hot and cold Baylor finally exploded from a slump yesterday with eight RBI.
Surprising as it may seem, even to statistics buffs, only one other head-to-head Triple Crown confrontation has ever taken place that even remotely approached the across-the-board tightness of the current Lynn-Rice duel -- even when that fly in the ointment Baylor is factorted in.
In 1930, the wildest of all rabbit ball seasons when, for instance, the entire National League average was .303, the most famous pair of teammates in baseball history almost had a three-way hookup for the most prestigious titles in the game.
Babe Ruth won the homer title from Lou Gehrig by a rather wide 49-41 margin. Gehrig won the RBI title with 174 while Ruth finished a moderately distant fourth with 153. Al Simmons won the batting title (.381) while Gehrig (.379) and Ruth (.359) were second and third.
Flip the Baseball Encyclopedia until your thumb bleeds, but, since 1920 when the Triple Crown became meaningful, that's as close as you can come to what Lynn and Rice are embarking on now. And, actually, it's not very close at all.
What's our next best comparison? The same Ruth and Gehrig the next year in '31. But that hardly counts since the batting championship race was well strung out. Simmons hitting .390. Ruth .373 and Gehrig in fifth place with .341.
Baseball has had a plethora of great teammate duos -- far too many to name. Yet in 60 seasons of the home run era, only six sets of teammates have managed to finish the season with both ranked in the top five (let alone the top two) in all three Triple Crown lists.
Ruth and Gehrig pulled the trick three times -- in 30's, '31 and '32. Frank Frank Robinson and Boog Powell of Baltimore were the most recent, in 1966. Before that the tabulation includes Joe DiMaggio and Gehrig in '37, Mize and Ducky Medwick of St. Louis, also in '37, Rogers Hornsby and Big Jim Bottomly of St. Louis in '25 and Hornsby and the virtually unknown one-year-flash Austin Henry in '21.
As is only appropriate, Lynn and Rice are having the two best offensive seasons in baseball in '79 -- not Kingman and Schmidt as the public has dutifully believed. The margin of their overall superiority, at least statistically, is clear.
Not only do Lynn and Rice have a dozen more RBI than Kingman and Schmidt, but they are running 30 to 35 ahead in runs produced. As for batting average and on-base percentage, the Boston Air run anywhere from 40 to 75 points ahead, any way you want to match them up.
This leap forward by the Boston bashers has been a sudden creation of August, in conspiracy with Fenway Park, that monstrous creator of grandiose and misleading stats.
During a 13-game home stand that ended last Sunday, Lynn and Rice hit a combined .440 in Fenway while slugging .990, with 15 homers and 31 RBI. Lynn hit .451 during a 20-game hitting streak, while Rice averaged .475 over a 16-game span. Lynn, with nine homers in a dozen games, managed perhaps the most spectacular power streak of a year that has had one artillery barrage after another.
"If I could, I'd bottle it, sell it, retire and teach it," said Lynn. "This is nothing you ever understand," said Rice. "I'm just in a groove."
Lynn, after his offseason weight-lifting program, now has the highest slugging average in baseball -- .670. That, in fact, is the highest mark since Mickey Mantle (.687) in 1961. For perspective, Ted Williams slugged .731 in 1957 -- the incredible year in which he hit .632 for the month of September.
Perhaps the most pleasant feature of this season's hitting extravaganza is that there is no reason to prefer any of our four duos over any other. Different sides of the batting diamond are revealed, all valid.
As a bonus, it is not necessary to belittle their accomplishments by sending up the henous cry: "Rabbit Ball."
True, home runs are up 20.9 percent in the American League and 19.4 percent in the National this season as compared with this week in August '78. Batting averages have risen by 10 points (.23 to .263) in the National and six points (.263 to .269) in the American as of the same juncture. And overall run production is up by nine-tenths of a run per game in each league -- from 7.9 to 8.8 in the NL and 8.5 to 9.4 in the AL.
Far more important, however, both homer and runs-scored figures are almost identical between late August of '79 and late August of '77 -- the first season when baseball switched from the mushy Spaulding ball to the tighter-wound Rawling product.
In other words, baseball has merely returned to the well-made and fair ball of '77 that made baseball fans rejoice. Most fans prefer just the sort of ball that is now in use -- slightly lively compared with the average since 1920, but not possessing enough rabbit genes to taint the records that are set with it.
What happened in '78? "What the players kept hearing," said Baltimore's Ken Singleton, "is that Rawlings had a fire in their factory and had to send out all their available balls that met minimum specifications.
"In '77 and again this year, it seems like they only send us the best-made, tightest-wound balls -- in other words, the liveliest ones.
"Even among a dozen balls in the same box, they're all going to be slightly different. Some covers will be softer, some seams will be higher on the good, well-stitched balls," pointed out Singleton.
"Oddly, a good hitter and a good pitcher will usually prefer the same kind of ball -- one of the lively ones. The hitter likes it because it flies further. The good pitcher likes it because the seams on the tighter ball are higher and firmer. Therefore, he can grip it better and make it break or sail more.
"Maybe the mediocre pitcher would prefer a not-so-well-made ball because it's softer. He can't make it do much, anyway.
"The ratio of lively, high-seam balls has gone up," said Oriole pitching coach Ray Miller. "We have (Coach) Elrod Hendricks pick out the high seamers so we can use 'em in the bullpen because the pitchers obviously prefer them.
"In '77, Eldrod says he could get three or four good balls out of a dozen," said Miller. "Last year, he might have to go through three dozen balls to find three with good high seams. This year, he's back to opening only one box."
The mildly juiced up ball probably helps sluggers like Kingman and Schmidt more than the Brett-Hernandez type batter who tries for line drives.
"Because of the liveliness, and the seams which give backspin when the ball is hit, the ball hangs in the air longer now," says the O's Mike Flanagan, who leads the majors in victories.
"Guys who make a living by hitting the ball in front of outfielders and between them are probably losing almost as many hits with the new ball as it's giving them because more of their liners and bloops are hanging up and getting caught," says Flanagan. "Obviously, the home run hitters get nothing but benefit. All they want is distance."
"Early in the year, I was scared to death," said O's Manager Earl Weaver. "I remember Cecil Cooper reached out for a low-away changeup with two strikes, and really just taking a punch swing with one hand coming off the bat at the end.
"He hit it over the center field fence in Milwaukee. I said 'Oh, no. What kinda joke ball have they given us this year'.
"But, as the year goes on, it seems there are just a few balls like that."
"The way the ball changes every year," said Flanagan, "you've got to learn to inspect them when you get a new one. If you squeeze it and can feel its heart beating, you throw it back to the umpire."
Baseball would be wise to study the ball that it has now and try to duplicate it for the next decade or so. For the last 15 years, the game has seriously jeopardized the value of its vital statistics by constantly coming up with drastically different balls. Fans have not known how to evaluate an earned-run average, a batting average or a home run or RBI pace until they took out their pocket calculators and Sunday newspaper averages so they could judge an individual player against his league as a whole. A starter's ERA of, say, 3.50 has had a wildly different meaning from one year to the next, ranging from down right bad in '68 to Top 10 quality this year.
Ironically, the worst dead balls have arrived on the scene in the last three presidential election years -- '68, '72 and '76. Hitting fell so badly in all three seasons (and '67, as well) that it actually endangered the basic attendance health of the sport. Hopefully, 1980 will not follow suit.
What distinguishes this Year of the Hitter from others -- like '61, '69, and '77 -- is the number and variety of players who are putting together spectacular seasons. In '77, two players managed to monopolize the batting headlines -- Rod Carew with his .388 average and 239 hits and George Foster with his 52 homers and 149 RBI.
This year has brought depth to the ranks of baseball's quality hitters. Don Baylor, for instance forms a slugging seven along with Lynn, Rice, Kingman, Schmidt, Brett and Hernandez.
Although his average is in the .290s (almost a slum neighborhood this season) Baylor leads the majors in runs produced (185). Just as that other RP leader, Hernandez, plays in Brock's shadow, Baylor plays publicity second fiddle to Carew. Both should be legitimate MVP contenders, though they are more likely to be most overlooked.
In other seasons, Singleton, Dave Winfield, Sixto Lezcano, Garry Templeton, Gorman Thomas and even oft-injured George Foster would have statistics to lift eyebrows. Singleton, a prime instance, has figures that project to 40 homers, 120 RBI, a near .300 average and more than .400 on-base percentage. And his team has the best record in baseball. Yet his chances for the league MVP award are slim.
In the majority of the last 20 years, those stats would have ensured him a runaway selection in his league.
Seldom, if ever, has baseball entered its final weeks with two head-on offensive wars like those between Lynn and Rice in the AL and Kingman and Schmidt in the senior curcuit.
Interestingly, the pairs offer almost identical personality profiles.
Both Lynn and Schmidt are totally graceful Golden Glove athletes with senses of humor, intelligence and a casual air of elegance about them. Partly as a consequence of their patrician bearing, they have been the central scapegoats for the '78 failures of their perennially snakebitten teams -- the Red Sox and Phillies.
Both changed themselves enormously, reevaluating their entire careers, during the last offseason, both vowing, in different ways, that they would never endure experiences again like those of last year.
The Boston press, following the lead of Boston fans, branded Lynn as fragile and gutless -- a sort of apotheosis of the Southern California, take-the-money-and-run athlete -- after he repeatedly benched himself with injuries while the Sox blew their 14-game league lead to New York.
Lynn, always a wall-crasher and hustler, but in a fluid manner, decided that only one thing would make him durable and provide armor against the charges against him -- old fashioned muscle.
Seldom has a player been so transformed by a few months of weight training. Fragile Freddy has become a Lynn wrecking crew, blasting 36 homers in 124 games where he had never managed more than 22 homers in 162 games before.
Schmidt, already one of the game's fiercest physical specimens, made a now-familiar decision in high pressure sports: he became a born-again Christian.
Although he is not a lapel-grabbing proselytizer, Schmidt, nevertheless seems far more at ease, less prone to brooding and self pity now that he has seen the importance of the Christian ethic of brotherly love and unselfishness.
While Lynn and Schmidt have prospered with a new sense of lighthearted play in their game, Kingman and Rice remain the same emotionally tangled, at-war-with-the-world time bombs that they have always been.
Both seem locked inside the macho pose, silent in public and sometimes feared even among their own teammates. Kingman, during his years before choosing the incommunicado life, always suffered from being too sensitive, too concerned about what others were saying about him or even thinking.
Rice remains the opposite -- insensitive to a fault in that he restricts his affection and civility to a few family members, friends and teammates while meeting the probing world around him with a glare even more forbidding than that of the young Ted Williams.
September promises to be the month when these two rich pairs of batsmen supreme engage in the stuff of baseball lore: the suddenly light-of-heart Lynn and Schmidt trying to outdistance the still painfully heavy-of-countenance Rice and Kingman.
If that is the case, then those fans who enjoy the feast will have a double delight. Enough statistical leftovers will remain for a full winter of digestion.