All season, Luis Arraez had been in hot pursuit of baseball immortals.
His batting average hovered around the vaunted .400 average, a standard not maintained through a big-league campaign since Ted Williams did it in 1941.
Then, in mid-June, Arraez suddenly went three games without a hit. Three games! For him, that amounted to a catastrophic drought. His average dropped to .378.
Arreaz, 26, responded with a flurry. Against Washington, he went 5 for 5. Against Toronto, five times up, five more hits. He kept the hit parade going through last weekend’s series against Pittsburgh.
Back to the .400 chase Arreaz went.
Major League Baseball’s rules changes, aimed at making the game faster and better, dominated the early-season narrative. But Arraez has emerged as a hero in the making — one who has begun to sculpt a season for the ages.
He hits his singles and soft drives in Miami’s mostly empty stadium and is little known. But if he stays above .400 past the All-Star break, his status will change. The pressure will mount with each at-bat, as it did for Williams even in an era reliant on radio broadcasts and the slow churn of daily newspapers to tell the story.
In today’s world, every swing will be digitized, streamed instantly across the globe and analyzed by commentators and fans. Arraez will be known far beyond the domain of baseball aficionados.
Arraez, a Venezuelan who is 5 feet 10 inches, is chasing more than a match of Williams, who finished that ’41 season with a .406 average. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, which had been in place since the 19th century. No player has ever finished a season batting at or above .400 since Major League Baseball became an integrated game.
Pursuing records has a magnetic way of enthralling and drawing us in. Always will, always has.
Consider the ancient Greeks. There were no clocks or stopwatches in the Athens of the sixth century B.C., but the Greeks kept a tally of the unparalleled number of victories achieved by athletes such as Milo of Croton, a wrestler who won gold medals in six Olympics.
And just as we are today, the ancient Greeks were obsessed with reputation.
“Imagine a world with no Twitter, no newspaper or ‘SportsCenter’ highlights,” said David Lunt, an associate professor of history at Southern Utah University. “You just have these reputations, these stories that people tell about you. ‘Oh my gosh, you would not believe what this amazing athlete did.’ And there were different ways they came up with to commemorate that.”
Poems were created, songs commissioned, statues erected. That’s how everyone knew an athlete had set the limits of performance.
Some things change with time, some do not. Today the record breakers are feted with billion-dollar careers, hundreds of millions of social media followers, and, for the lucky few like Willie Mays and Wayne Gretzky, a statue in front of a stadium.
In February, a LeBron James jump shot toppled one of the biggest, buzziest milestones in basketball: most points scored in an N.B.A. career — 38,387 — a record held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar since 1985 and long considered unbeatable.
Honoring Abdul-Jabbar allows for memories of other athletic masters and the records they own.
Wilt Chamberlain, with his 100-point game, the most scored in the N.B.A.
Bill Russell, with his 11 N.B.A. titles, the most any player has won in the league.
Milestones possess a certain kind of magic. They exist on a continuum, honoring unparalleled excellence while beckoning future generations to the chase.
So it is that Margaret Court’s record haul of 24 Grand Slam singles titles evokes Serena Williams’s heart-stirring chase that stalled at 23, which conjures Novak Djokovic, who won his 23rd Slam event at this month’s French Open and could match Court at Wimbledon.
There are records that seem unsurpassable — only to be felled by the wrecking ball of a single stirring, stunning outlier of a performance. At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Bob Beamon set such a record in long jump, leaping nearly two feet beyond the previous world’s best.
Then, in 1991, along came Mike Powell, who snatched the mark by leaping 29 feet 4½ inches, two inches past Beamon.
It has been 32 years, and Powell’s performance is still the standard. For now.
Then there are milestones which aren’t quite records but have come to seem like them.
When the topic of the elusive .400 mark comes up, you’d be forgiven for thinking Williams was not only the last to meet that average but the first. You’d be wrong, though. Dozens of major league players, including Ty Cobb, reached that standard before Williams.
But the major leagues of Williams and Cobb, and thus their records, will forever be stained by the scourge of racism. That’s why, if Arraez keeps his hot streak going and hits .400 or more for the season, he should be hailed as the first big leaguer ever to truly reach that mark — a baseball immortal.
Remember Milo of Croton? He was said to have gone to war wearing the olive crowns he’d won for his Olympic records — along with a lion’s skin and a club that made him seem like the god Hercules.
An important detail of that story is probably the stuff of metaphor, said Heather Reid, a professor of philosophy who studies the ancient Greeks and their relationship with sports. The wrestling champion was not likely wearing his Olympic crowns, which in antiquity were made of olive branches for a reason: They disintegrated, a nod to the fleeting nature of life.
And that points to a fundamental connection between ancient and modern sports. Then and now, records represent a “study in the limits of human excellence,” as Reid suggested.
Mortals push the boundaries, which make them seem like gods for a time. Until someone comes along to knock them from the pedestal. That’s why we watch.
Over last weekend’s series against Pittsburgh, Arreaz’s average rose as high as .401 as he flicked pitch after pitch for singles and even knocked his third home run of the season. A 1-for-4 Sunday parked him back at .399.
If he can ride the season’s swoons and end up over .400, it will be time for a statue in front of Miami’s stadium. Plus a poem, a song, and perhaps an olive crown.