CINCINNATI -- The inflexible tradition, of which Cincinnati's Billy Hatcher is simply the latest example, was established in the very first inning of the first World Series game ever played.

Cy Young of Boston faced Jimmy Sebring, 21, the little-known .277-hitting right fielder of the Pirates. The rookie drove in two runs. Next time he faced Young, another hit and another RBI. Finally, in the seventh inning, the 511-game winner and the peon Sebring met again. Sebring, who hit only six home runs in his whole five-season career, hit the ball over the center field fence for the first homer in Series history.

In the end, it was Sebring, not teammate Honus Wagner, who led all '03 Series hitters with a .367 average.

Every season, almost, the ghost of Jimmy Sebring arises. Sebring has come dressed as Don Larsen, Dusty Rhodes, Brian Doyle, Al Weis, Moe Drabowsky, Cookie Lavagetto, Sandy Amoros, Bernie Carbo, Al Gionfriddo, Howard Ehmke, Bill Wambsganss and Mickey Hatcher. If Bobby Richardson doesn't have 12 RBI, then Billy Martin has a dozen hits. They pitch perfect games, make unassisted triple plays and break up no-hitters with two-out game-winning hits in the ninth. They make catches and throws they never dreamed of. And they do it to Joe DiMaggio or Yogi Berra or Bob Lemon.

What do Rick Dempsey, Steve Yeager and Larry Sherry have in common? None of them ever made an all-star team but each has been World Series MVP. The first man named Series MVP in '55 was, of course, Johnny Podres -- journeyman with the hot hand.

The World Series isn't baseball's center stage. It is the game's great Hall of Justice. The rich and mighty come there -- most often to be humbled. They predict sweeps, then miss fly balls. But the meek -- like Billy Hatcher, with his World Series-record seven straight hits, has said: "I'd be happy to bat ninth. I just want to play." The Hatchers of the world meet moments of glory so sweet and unexpected that the nation has to find a pocket hankie.

So far in this World Series, the list of Cincinnati heroes has included Jose (53-52) Rijo, Ron Oester, Glenn Braggs, Joe Oliver, Scott Scudder and even Billy Bates, who has three major league hits.

Well, actually four now. He started the Reds' winning Game 2 rally with a 10th-inning hit off divine Dennis Eckersley. Well, actually, a 50-foot Baltimore chop. The Eck, to his eternal credit, said, "My gawd, Billy Bates . . . I bet he's a happy kid." Maybe the game was just squaring matters with the Eck for ringing up old Dewey Evans, six-gun style, in the playoffs.

"Better to be lucky than good," said Bates -- the Series hero's mantra.

None of the Reds -- and few players ever -- has had the hot hand that's been dealt to Hatcher. And you have to wonder if, once again, the game hasn't put its pinky on the scales to even up some past injustices.

It was the 5-foot-9, rotund, bouncy Hatcher, we should remember, who was robbed -- in a celebrity sense -- of one of the game's better clutch homers. His titanic third-deck blow in the 14th inning off Jesse Orosco tied the score of Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series. If Houston had won that pennant, Hatcher would be the Kirby Puckett of Texas.

It was also Hatcher who, the next spring, was suspended for 10 days for using a corked bat -- the harshest such cheating suspension in history. He is the model of a plucky, unselfish, popular player. For him to get crucified for such a common sin seemed far too harsh to many. Besides, he still claims he had just borrowed pitcher Dave Smith's bat. NL President Bart Giamatti could not find it in his heart, or head, to believe that a relief pitcher who might bat five times a year would bother to cork a bat.

No, Hatcher has never gotten what was coming to him. After two fine seasons in Houston, he had one bad year and got traded. At 30 this spring, he found himself trapped in Pittsburgh behind Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke.

"I don't want to be an insurance policy," he told Pirates Manager Jim Leyland, who had been trapped in the minors for 18 years himself. "Trade me anywhere just so I can play."

Leyland thought so much of Hatcher, as all the little hustler's bosses have, that he dealt him to the Reds for people named Mike Roesler and Jeff Richardson.

"He's a great kid. Love him," said Leyland after Hatcher helped kill the Pirates with a homer in the third game of the NLCS. "I just didn't know we'd see him again in the darn playoffs."

So far in this Series, Hatcher has walked and scored; doubled home a run and scored; doubled off the left field wall and scored; beaten out his 30th infield hit of the year; doubled home a run off the right field wall and scored; doubled to left; beaten out a leadoff bunt; tripled off Jose Canseco's glove and scored to tie Game 2 in the eighth inning; and been walked intentionally.

Yeah, you'd have walked him too.

Where are the outs? Ain't none yet.

Add a new item to the short list of baseball records that will never be broken: most consecutive hits to start a World Series career. Yes, somebody may someday get eight straight to erase Hatcher's record. But do you think anybody is ever going to do it starting with his first Series at-bat?

After Hatcher hit his '90 playoff home run, he was asked what residue had been left by his memorable '86 playoff homer. He shrugged. "Someday I can put the tape in my TV and tell my grandchildren, 'See, I once played in the major leagues.' " That's all.

Billy Hatcher wants you to know that teammate Eric Davis (Headline: "Davis Stuns Goliath") is the real hero of the Series so far. "His home run {in Game 1} took the pressure off everybody." Hatcher wants you to know that he won't complain if he doesn't play and that "it's not this easy. It's just that everything I hit is falling in."

He figured he would be remembered as a little round guy with limited tools who bounced around, worked hard and did what he was told. In lore, he would be recalled as the player who hit the greatest homer that nobody remembered and as the most severely punished bat-corker ever.

He did not like that legacy much, but he figured that players in his humble category did not have much say in rewriting history.

He was wrong. Sometimes it does not seem that the World Series exists primarily for the crowning of a world champion. Instead, it seems to exist so that the Billy Hatchers of baseball can get to experience for a few days what the legends of the sport have bestowed upon them for their whole careers.