If he does nothing else the rest of his baseball career, Mariners Single-A prospect James McOwen has shown that the Juice Scandal did not destroy baseball fans’ fascination with records.
Sure, both the single-season and career marks for home runs remain tainted, as they were conceived in the laboratory that produced the superhuman version of Barry Bonds. No matter how many advances are made in performance-enhancer testing, anybody who remotely threatens Bonds’ numbers will be under suspicion.
Home-run records no longer count, and I can’t imagine how they’ll ever count again.
But McOwen has called attention to another kind of record: most consecutive games with a hit. The High Desert Mavericks outfielder will take a 45-game hitting streak into a California League game at Modesto tonight after he was given the night off Thursday against San Jose. It was the longest streak in pro baseball since 1954, when Roman Mejias went on a 54-game tear with Waco in the Big State League. If McOwen gets a hit in the next game he plays, his streak will tie one by Johnny Bates for the seventh-longest of all time.
Unlike a home-run quest, during which sluggers can be silenced for an entire week and still sustain their aspirations, a hitting streak is a drama that packs suspense into daily increments. With each failed at-bat, interest is compounded.
McOwen, for instance, was 0-for-3 the other night before dropping a broken-bat single to left in the eighth inning. No matter that the Mavericks were trailing, 11-2. McOwen’s hit – the seventh time he’s extended his streak in his last at-bat – pushed him past the 44-game streak Pete Rose put together for the Cincinnati Reds in 1978.
It’s likely I’ll never again type the names “James McOwen” and “Pete Rose” in the same sentence, but McOwen’s obscurity makes his hitting streak all the more satisfying. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of the 23-year old product of Florida International University, selected by Seattle the sixth round of the 2007 draft.
He broke in two years ago with Wisconsin in the low Class-A Midwest League, showing no power and little inclination on how to work a count, striking out 55 times, with only nine walks. Against more advanced competition last season in the California League, McOwen struck out too much – 103 times in 126 games – but took 44 walks while hitting .263.
In other words, there was nothing to suggest Jamie McOwen (as his name appears in the Seattle media guide) soon would be profiled on ESPN’s “First Take” show and followed by fans in the Northwest waiting for updates during telecasts of Mariners games.
But that’s the beauty of his streak. He has evolved from a .270-hitting mediocrity on May 10 to the terror of the Cal League. And while his climb up the organizational ladder might still be steep, getting a hit in 45 straight games is a remarkable achievement at any level.
By the way, the record for most consecutive games with a hit? In the major leagues, of course, it belongs to Joe DiMaggio, who reached 56 in 1941. (He supposedly was miffed that he was denied a hit in 57 straight games – not so much because his streak was stopped, but that he missed out on a possible endorsement opportunity with the Heinz Co.).
The minor-league record is open to dispute: Although DiMaggio reached 61 with the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals in 1933, Joe Wilhoit – a former big leaguer in the decline phase of his career – had a 69-game hitting streak, in 1919, with Wichita of the Western League. Only problem: Wichita belonged to an independent league whose statistics weren’t universally recognized.
So the all-time pro record is either 69, owned by some Joe, or 61, owned by the one and only Joe, the same Joe whose 1941 hitting streak with the Yankees became the most closely followed story line of the era. (Ted Williams won the American League’s Triple Crown that season, but the MVP went to DiMaggio).
When I was growing up, the magic numbers in the record book were 61 (held by Roger Maris, for most homers in a season), and 714 (held by Babe Ruth, for most home runs in a career). DiMaggio’s 56 ranked a distant third.
Now that Maris’ 61 and Ruth’s 714 (and Henry Aaron’s 755) have been surpassed, by dubious methods, maybe 56 belongs as the gold standard of baseball records.
As for some of McOwen’s other peers on the all-time pro hitting-streak list, Cuban-born Roman Mejias went on to play outfield with the Pirates before hooking up with Houston’s expansion team in 1962, when he led the Colt .45s with 24 home runs.
Johnny Bates played for five big-league teams between 1906 and 1914, hitting .310 in his best season, with the 1910 Phillies. But his 46-game streak in the minors has been long forgotten. There is no mention of it in my copy of “The Ballplayers: Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference,” although the researchers do point out that Bates “later became an offseason pool-hall owner and breeder of show dogs.”
It should be noted the book was published in 1990, B.S.