In one small compensatory sense, baseball is the easy game, the forgiving game. For whatever peace it gives, today can always be forgotten in the rush to reach tomorrow. No matter how bad you are on Tuesday, you play again on Wednesday -- always one game or even one swing from atonement. If it weren't for its instant absolution, built into the core of the sport, maybe the game would simply be too exasperating to endure. Even in the World Series you get to lose three times.
Also, baseball lets the individual hide within the team, at least for short stretches of time, until he can catch his breath. His error is overshadowed in the team's victory. His fine catch on defense can conceal all the runners he left on base. Even a bad slump can, at times, coincide with team victories.
That's why a hitting streak is the most fragile and stressful phenomenon in baseball, perhaps in all team sports. For the only time in baseball, a player is stripped of both of his psychological protections. He is not allowed to have a single bad day. Or even a single unlucky day. And he is isolated from any team protection. All alone, one man against nine, he pursues a game within the game.
That's why Paul Molitor has come to fascinate us in recent days in a way that very few players have since World War II. The Milwaukee Brewers' designated hitter last night in Cleveland hit in his 33rd straight game -- more than a month of games without a collar. Because Joe DiMaggio's 56-game streak dwarfs other streaks so dramatically, it is easy to miss what Molitor has accomplished.
He is tied for the 10th-longest hitting streak in post-1900 history. Pundits race to observe that, so far, this is the longest streak of the 1980s -- as though Molitor had to wait until after the 1989 season before he could claim to have done anything special. Let's look at things a tad differently. Molitor's binge is already longer than any streak in the 1950s or 1960s. In fact, since the Korean War, only Pete Rose, with hits in 44 consecutive games in 1978, has reached this high, lonely plateau where the whole sports world waits every day -- to see if you've failed yet.
You can have a bad day or even a bad week and still bat .400 or hit 60 home runs. But a hitting streak can die, as DiMaggio's did -- in Cleveland -- in a hail of line drives. That is why the streaker becomes such a romantic figure. Will he be stopped by a hot pitcher, a hot fielder, a bad umpire? By himself? Or by all of the above?
Heck, a leadoff man like Molitor could do his job superbly -- draw a couple of walks, steal a base, hit a sacrifice fly, give himself up to advance a runner -- and still end up zero for one. That would be all she wrote.
The night Rose was halted, he hit two rockets in Atlanta -- one at the third baseman, another into the glove of a pitcher who barely knew he'd found a particle of history in his fist. Finally, it took a submarine change-up on a full-count pitch (a weird selection in a lopsided game) to confound Rose in his game-ending at-bat.
Because the streaker needs all the breaks, and then some, we feel he needs our goodwill, too. When Molitor kept himself alive on Monday night with a bunt hit, it seemed a nice omen. Rose kept it going in '78 with a bunt that Mike Schmidt couldn't or didn't field.
"I'm happy to get my hit early," Molitor said Monday. "As the game goes on, you find yourself pressing."
That is an understatement. Molitor has had few, if any, advantages during his streak. His team is not in a pennant race, so he can't swathe himself in a higher quest. The hitters behind him are good, but not fearsome. The thought of Robin Yount, Glenn Braggs and Rob Deer coming up isn't making pitchers throw Molitor fastball after fastball.
As though a hitting streak weren't enough, Molitor also has another high stake on the line. If he can stay healthy for the rest of the season -- and, remember, Molitor has been the most frequently disabled star of the '80s with visits to the DL in '80, '81, '84, '85, '86 and '87 -- he has a shot at enough plate appearances for the batting title. As of yesterday, Molitor trailed Wade Boggs, .365 to .362.
Perhaps more important, Molitor has already succeeded in drawing saturation coverage for the first time in his distinguished but frequently overlooked 10-year career. When you play in Milwaukee and break bones almost as often as other players break bats, you don't get much ink. True, Molitor is the only player to have five hits in a World Series game. But that glory lasted one day and was forgotten the next week when the St. Louis Cardinals snatched the '82 Series from the Big Blue Brew Crew.
Now, Molitor's tale of frustration, and his consistent excellence when he has been healthy, are far more widely known. When he is in one piece, Molitor approaches the level of George Brett. It's too bad that Molitor's reputation for hustling himself into the hospital has reached the point where the Brewers use him strictly at designated hitter to protect him from his own instincts. When you miss more than 400 games in 10 years, somebody's got to tie you down.
Since returning from, where else, the disabled list on July 16, Molitor has shown why his nickname -- The Ignitor -- has always been a perfect one. Over the course of his run, he has hit . 406 (36 for 138), about normal for a long streak; DiMaggio hit .406 during his. However, Molitor, who slashes doubles and triples, steals bases and hits best in the clutch, also has produced 55 runs and gotten on base 77 times in those 33 games. No wonder the Brewers, who were struggling a bit when Molitor returned to the lineup, are now within sight of the fading third-place Yankees.
Molitor's streak puts him in exalted company in the Top Dozen with the likes of Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and George Sisler. Could he continue until his 31st birthday this Saturday? That would be 37 games -- the sixth best ever.
When Molitor is stopped, it will probably be far too easy for us to minimize what he's done because of that dastardly, unrealistic number -- 56 -- the Record of Records in American sport.
To help us give Molitor his due, perhaps we should remember one fact. Joe DiMaggio only had one hitting streak as long as Paul Molitor's in his entire career. Joe D just happened to keep going. For almost another month.