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NBCSports.com contributor
updated 2/20/2009 12:52:17 PM ET 2009-02-20T17:52:17
COMMENTARY

Somebody, some day, will beat Joe DiMaggio. Just as Cal Ripken, Jr. forged past Lou Gehrig and Roger Maris chased down Babe Ruth’s 60 and Hank Aaron knocked down the Babe’s 714, somebody will one day pass Joe D.

The guy who had the latest shot was the Phillies’ Chase Utley. His chase was halted at 35, but he came a long way, given the short list of hitters ahead of him.

Utley had one of the top-15 hitting streaks of all time, and that covers 130 years of major league history. Even though it’s a long way from DiMaggio, it’s still a remarkable achievement.

Utley wasn't going to pass DiMaggio. But someone will.

I’m in a minority on this one, most observers — expert and amateur alike — consider DiMaggio’s streak to be the most unassailable in baseball. (We’re talking only about numbers that are theoretically possible; Cy Young’s 511 victories are out of the discussion.)

But, as the adage goes, records are made to be broken. It might not be possible to win 511 games in a career, but it is possible to hit in 56 straight games or 80 straight, for that matter. Given enough time and enough players trying, it even becomes likely, thanks to the theory of very large numbers.

Statisticians will tell you that any time you have large numbers of people all trying to do the same thing, you can expect the unexpected. Thus, the odds of any one person winning the lottery twice are billions or even trillions to one. But because millions of people play the lottery, the odds that someone, somewhere will win the lottery twice are actually pretty good — about 30-1. It has happened a number of times. People have won it in consecutive weeks, even, just as a statistician would expect.

In this case, you have thousands of ballplayers over the years, and each is trying to get a hit in every game. Every once in a while, one manages to put together a streak that makes us take notice.

DiMaggio’s record itself could be attributed at least partly to the theory. It is so far ahead of second place, which is the 44 straight by Pete Rose in 1978 and by Wee Willie Keeler in the 19th century, that it’s a freak in itself.

Yes, Joe D was a great hitter, but he’s not the greatest hitter in history. Ted Williams was a better hitter. So were Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Ed Delahanty, Lefty O’Doul, Tris Speaker, Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Gwynn and many more; DiMaggio’s lifetime average of .3246 is just 43rd all-time.

Give DiMaggio credit. He put up the number. But also give the luck of the draw a big dollop of credit. His 56-game streak was the equivalent of winning the lottery — twice. Of all the people who were trying to get a hit in every at-bat and in every game, he got one a game for more games than anyone else. And to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he also had a streak of 61 straight in the minor leagues. And just after his hit streak ended, he hit in 17 straight.

To put what DiMaggio did in perspective, consider that hitting in 35 straight — a remarkable accomplishment — is just 63 percent of Joe DiMaggio’s record. To compare that to other benchmarks, to get to within 63 percent of hitting .400, you’d have to bash out hits at a .252 clip, to hit 63 percent as many home runs as Barry Bonds’ record of 73, you’d need to whack 46 out of the park. To get to 63 percent of a 30-win season, a pitcher would have to win 19 games.

None of the above accomplishments is that big a deal. Forty-six home runs is a good season, but it’s hardly anything to set off a media frenzy. Nineteen wins is a good season, particularly in this day and age, but it’s still one win short of the benchmark of pitching excellence. And a .252 average is an embarrassment.

That shows you just how far above the crowd DiMaggio’s feat towers. It also shows you how freakish it is.

But as monumental as the mark is, it isn’t untouchable. It can’t be, and, given enough time, it won’t be.

Last year, Jimmy Rollins hit in 36 straight to end the 2005 season, then added two more to begin this season to get to 38. This year, it’s Rollins’ teammate on the Phillies, Utley, taking his swing at the record books.

Long streaks are incredibly rare, but we’ve already had two in two seasons. In 2002, Luis Castillo hit in 35 straight for the Marlins. The last time two long streaks came that close together was in 1987, when Paul Molitor made it to 39 and Benito Santiago went 34.

It’s probably harder to do today than it was for DiMaggio. DiMaggio didn’t have any media pressure to speak of. Once he passed Keeler with 44 straight games, he was in uncharted territory, with no pressure to beat anyone. There also wasn’t the national media that there is today, and television wasn’t a presence.

And being asked about doing something 100 times a day makes you think about it, which makes it harder to do. Utley so far is handling it well by refusing to talk about it. But he knows he’s in rarified air; he knows where he stands and where he needs to get to.

DiMaggio also played almost exclusively during the day and didn’t have to deal with jet lag. Those are two more big advantages.

But Utley probably got to hit against weaker pitching, although he also had to face better relievers than DiMaggio did. Utley also faced faster defenses with bigger gloves than DiMaggio faces. A ball that a fielder in DiMaggio’s day would miss by an inch would be an easy play today.

And there are always players capable of it. Utley has shown he is one. Ichiro Suzuki has to be considered as a threat. Maybe Joe Mauer can do it, or Derek Jeter or Freddy Sanchez.

Or it may be somebody who hasn’t even been born yet. But it will be someone, some day. The law of very large numbers told me so.

Mike Celizic writes regularly for MSNBC.com and is a freelance writer based in New York.

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