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Driving Drunk

Grab a bag of peanuts, crack a cold beer and make yourself at home while we administer today's number-association test. Here goes: Fifty-six. Sixty-one. Five hundred and eleven. Seven hundred and fifty-five. Four thousand one hundred and ninety-one. Point three-six-seven. Three. Two. One.

Simple, wasn't it? Piece of cake.
Any authentic baseball fan more than nine years old and 48 inches high immediately grasps the significance of these magical figures, because statistics, for better or worse, are the measure and mantra of a true fan's passion.

Joe DiMaggio, as everyone knows, hit safely in 56 straight games--the sturdiest record in the book. In 1961, Roger Maris belted a record 61 home runs--a record not so safe these days. The peerless Denton True "Cy" Young, for whom the game's annual pitching awards are named, won an astonishing 511 games--a total that any two great current pitchers put together would have trouble matching. Hank Aaron hit 755 lifetime homers, demolishing Babe Ruth's "untouchable" major-league mark of 714. The great, greatly detested Ty Cobb held a similarly unassailable record of 4,191 career hits until the great, greatly detested Pete Rose stormed past him in the 1980s. Cobb had a lifetime batting average of .367. Forget it. God himself couldn't hit .367 lifetime.

Three? That's the number of fingers on the legendary Mordecai Brown's pitching hand. And the number of errors ex-New York Mets shortstop Elio Chacon once made on a single play. In the estimation of the late major-league owner Bill Veeck, it also connotes baseball justice: "You get three strikes," he said. "Even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off."

Two is the number of times Andre Dawson came within shouting distance of the RBI record for a single season, which is a colossal 190. And one--one is the number of 5' 6", 195-pound Chicago Cubs outfielders wearing size 5 1/2 shoes who hold that record.

The man's name is Lewis Robert Wilson. Hack Wilson. And for 67 seasons, no one--not Hammerin' Hank, not the Mick, not Ken Griffey, father or son--has begun to threaten his achievement. Not until this year, anyway. On July 5, in his final game before the All-Star break, the Texas Rangers' big, rangy right-fielder, Juan Gonzalez, struck a pair of two-run homers off Seattle's scary fastballer, Randy Johnson. That upped Going Going Gonzalez's 1998 RBI total to 101, and if he wasn't already a serious candidate to finally topple Wilson, he became one that night.

As any hitter worth the name can tell you, a hundred runs batted in makes for an admirable, contract-enhancing season. To do it in 85 games is a major miracle--even in a year when no fewer than five sluggers, led by the Cardinals' Mark McGwire, have a shot at Maris's home-run record and pitchers suddenly have the life expectancy of infantrymen at Verdun. Hitting in a Texas lineup that features plenty of power, clean-up man Gonzalez consistently has teammates on base when he gets to the plate, and he's come through in the clutch like never before.

Baseball people agree: Only the wilting heat and humidity of Dallas in late summer or the grind of the long season can likely keep the modest, likable young star from surpassing one of baseball's most cherished records.

Nothing against Juan, but I hope he falls on his butt in the second half of the season--or at least a few ribbies short of 190. Because if any player in history still deserves a break from the baseball gods and a star on the books, it's Hack Wilson.

You've probably heard part of the story. In a nutshell: Good hitter, bad drunk. Although he was one of the greatest players of his era--in the early Thirties, his salary was second only to Babe Ruth's--Wilson's off-field antics earned him such ill repute with the stainless moralists who presumed to run baseball and the teetotaling saints who wrote about it in the papers that he wasn't voted into baseball's Hall of Fame until 1979--45 years after he played his last game and 31 years after his death.

"He was a very irresponsible type of fellow," ex-teammate Waite Hoyt once told a reporter. "He would have been better off if he knew his limitations." Instead, Warren Brown once wrote, Hack liked to hit high balls even more off the field than on it. Wilson entertained the public, friend and foe, deep into the night in the saloons of Chicago and tended to the damages in the only way he knew how: For every quart of whiskey he drank in the wee hours, it was said, he downed a quart of milk before game time.

In his last season, with the Dodgers, a badly hung-over Wilson was daydreaming in the outfield one afternoon when Brooklyn pitcher Boom Boom Beck (so named for the frequency of the hits he gave up) got yanked from the game. Angry, Beck threw the ball from the mound into the outfield fence. Roused from his slumber, Wilson promptly ran it down and threw it home. The end was near.

Bandy-legged, barrel-chested and bull-necked--he wore an eighteen-inch collar and swung a huge, forty-ounce bat--the tiny fireplug of an outfielder began his career in 1923 with John McGraw's New York Giants and quickly became a crowd favorite. But a clerical error by the Giants' front office left him on the open market, and he found himself in Wrigley Field for the 1926 season. In the next five seasons he led the league in homers four times, and over that span, only Ruth and Lou Gehrig drove in more runs.

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