Now Andre Ethier is at 28 games with his hitting streak. Four weeks of daily hitting, most of which has unfolded in relative anonymity. It was not until 20 games or thereabouts that word of the streak even began to trickle out past the borders of what has been a very topsy-turvy Dodgerland this season.
Quietly, Ethier has built his run by dint of some sweet swinging (he batted an even .400 while hitting in an April-record 26 straight games), a few breaks (four times he has extended the streak with an infield hit) and a sense of timeliness (on four occasions he's kept his streak alive in his final at-bat).
Halfway to 56, halfway to what Joe DiMaggio did in 1941, and already there is talk of the hallowed record that shimmers far in the distance. "Even the Great DiMag would say that you have to have a little luck," the Dodgers television announcer Vin Scully was drawling shortly after Ethier made it 27 straight on Sunday.
Luck indeed. In that game, Ethier's ground ball was muffed at first base by the Padres' Brad Hawpe, a converted outfielder. Ethier made it easily to first. After a pause, the ball was ruled a hit. The hometown crowd cheered. It would be Ethier's only hit of the day.
"When I was deciding whether to call it a hit or an error, I wasn't even thinking about the streak," says Don Hartack, the game's official scorer.
That won't be possible anymore for Hartack, or for whomever is scoring a Dodgers game. From now on close attention will be paid to every ball that Ethier hits with his streak on the line. He ran the streak to 28 with another infield hit, this time against the Cubs, on Monday night, and now he has the third-longest hitting streak in the 128-year history of the Dodgers. This streak is starting to mean something. The easy part is over.
For a couple of games now, outside TV networks have been cutting away to air Ethier's at-bats, live or via replay. For a couple of games now Scully has been saying things like. "And Andre Ethier is due to lead off next inning. So stay right where you are." For a couple of games now, the crowd at Dodger Stadium has been getting noisy each time Ethier comes to bat.
Plenty of highly undistinguished hitters have hit in 28, 29, even 30 straight games. Like the Braves' Rowland Office, memorable mostly for being named Rowland Office, who hit in 29 in a row 35 years ago. Or Jerome Walton, a .269 career hitter who put together a 30-gamer for the Cubs in 1989.
Then the pretenders start to fall off. You get a couple of interlopers in the early 30s (Benito Santiago anyone? The .263 career hitter ran off 34 straight as a Padre in '87.). But once you get past 35 -- about a week away for Ethier, or an eternity, depending on who is doing the counting -- you're into one of the top 10 hitting streaks of all time. Get past 35 and you're surrounded by Hall of Famers and MVPs. And at 35 games you're still three full weeks of games away from Joe DiMaggio, three full weeks away from 56.
"A hitting streak is HARD, man," George Brett told me while I was researching my book, 56: Joe DiMaggio And The Last Magic Number In Sports. Brett knows. He hit in 30 straight in 1980, the same year he batted .390. "Someone's a lot more likely to hit .400 than hit in 56 straight," he added
Oh, that's what they all say. Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro. All those kind of elite hit-makers. "The problem is that there's so much attention on a streak," Gwynn said to me. He is a .338 lifetime hitter, a 15-time All-Star, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his 20-year career he never hit in more than 25 consecutive games.
"You get to thinking about it too much," Gwynn went on. "You start worrying about getting a hit. And that is not the way you want to be when you're in the batter's box. During a streak you think too much about HOW you're going to hit and IF you're going to hit instead of just hitting."
That's also what they all say. When I spoke to Keith Hernandez, a perennial .300 hitter whose playing career ended in 1990, about this he said he didn't keep track of his hitting streaks but then added, "I would read a note [in the newspaper] that said 'Hernandez has hit in 13 straight games.' Then that night I'd be sure to go 0-for-4."
Being self-conscious about the streak is one thing to deal with. The outside attention on the streak, and how it grows exponentially as the streak swells is another. Not to mention that the hitting itself gets harder. Walks don't do you any good when you're on a streak, so you may be likely to "expand your zone," as Boggs said to me, to go after a bad pitch. A smart pitcher will stay off the plate, hope to get a streaker to chase something and get himself out. "And there's a good chance you will," said Boggs.
Ethier's a pretty good hitter -- .295 for his career. Good power. Twenty-nine years old. Already he has done something that he will be remembered for when his career is over. Already he has done something that only two Dodgers -- going all the way back to the franchise's first game, in 1884 -- have ever done.
Yet he is only halfway to 56. Joe DiMaggio is a month of ballgames away. There's a reason that DiMaggio's hitting streak has not been challenged in the 70 years since it was set. There are many reasons. For Ethier, the easy part is over.