“Uncle Shane, what if a player hit a home run every time?”
I’ve been hearing questions like that a lot lately. My sister just moved up to Asheville with her two children. Among doing other things, this has thrown me in pretty close with my nephew Holland, who is a pretty fair ballplayer for nine. Trying to help the boy through a rough transition, I’ve been taking time to watch some baseball games with him the last couple weeks.
I’ve been getting peppered with Holland’s questions during these games, and in trying to deepen his baseball knowledge I’ve actually tried to answer a few. For instance, after I explained how most pitchers don’t bat too well in the bigs, he asked if a pitcher had ever managed to hit an over-the-fence home run. This is where I got to tell him how Babe Ruth started in the majors. The name “Babe Ruth” strikes Holland the way I imagine invoking Zeus struck the classical Greeks: awesome power at a distant remove. Telling Holland the Babe had been a pitcher left him speechless, and this is no easy feat.
So when Holland asked if someone could hit a home run every time, I actually tried to engage the question. Nobody could do it over a whole career, I explained, but for a single game I supposed it was possible. Pretty easy, actually, if you were a pinch-hitter and came up only once. (Images of a fist-pumping Kirk Gibson flitted through my mind.) Holland needed the term “pinch-hitter” explained, though, and the train of thought wobbled off-course and lost steam.
Events of the evening would bring it back.
Holland and I were watching the Rangers and Tigers on MLB Network. This disappointed Holland, as he likes the Yankees, but their game against the Twins wasn’t being carried by MLBN in our area. I had my iPod loaded with the proper app, though, so I could follow the score on his behalf (and mine, of course). The Twins leaped ahead with four in the first, but the Yankees got most of that back in their half, sparked by a Curtis Granderson home run. New York rallied again in the second, and took the lead … on a Curtis Granderson home run.
And as I told Holland this, suddenly a question he had asked in youthful ignorance began gaining some heft.
I knew a bit about the players who had hit four homers in a single game. Lou Gehrig had been the first, his accomplishment swept off the front pages by John McGraw‘s retirement the same day. I recalled those four homers and a double off the wall at Ebbets Field, though I was blanking on Joe Adcock‘s name. I knew it had been done a number of other times—but I did not know whether anyone had accomplished it in just four plate appearances.
And I didn’t know whether Curtis Granderson had this kind of historic accomplishment in him. But I was sure thinking about it.
As Yu Darvish doused a Detroit rally with only one run scored to maintain a slim lead, bedtime came for Holland. He left for bed without resistance, which I suspect wouldn’t have happened had the Yankees been playing. As Texas began mounting its own threat in the top of the fifth, I checked my app again, just in case. And there it was. Bottom of the fourth, one out. A single, deceptively prosaic line.
“Curtis Granderson homered.”
It had only been a couple minutes, so I went to knock on my nephew’s door. Three home runs, and it’s just the fourth inning. Pretty exciting news for Holland, yes, but more so for me, because I understood the context. I knew how unusual this was. I knew Granderson had a shot now, a real measurable shot, at history. Four home runs would tie the record. And with four-plus innings at least left for the hot Yankees’ bats, he would have more than one chance.
But Holland’s question echoed within me. What if Curtis hit a home run every time? What if …?
“Impossible.” We use that word pretty loosely sometimes, as shorthand for “so unlikely it’s not worth thinking about.” And at the start of the game, a five-homer performance was just that kind of impossible. The same kind of impossible that some randomly chosen journeyman, hanging on to a rotation slot by his fingernails, will pitch a perfect game.
But at some point, as the statistics accumulate, that rhetorically tossed-off “impossible” becomes “you know, maybe.” Curtis Granderson had reached that point, and because of a question my nine-year-old nephew had asked, I was at that point with him.
Of course, Granderson didn’t make history. He singled in the sixth and singled in the eighth, and the Yankees hung on to win. Only in the context of his first three at-bats could that be considered any kind of disappointment. Or perhaps if you’re still nine, and don’t fully grasp the bounds of the game, and of human abilities.
But Holland picked an awfully good time to ask what adults would consider a pretty silly question. And when he comes home from school today, I will have an answer for him. If a player hit a home run every time … he would be Carlos Delgado. Of the 13 players to hit four home runs in a game, he is the only one who did it in four plate appearances.
The date, though, is a bit galling: Sept. 25, 2003. Not even nine years ago, and I had forgotten this unique baseball accomplishment so thoroughly that I had to look it up to know it had even happened. Maybe to get any long-lasting recognition, you do have to hit five home runs in a game.
Impossible, you say. But you know, maybe …