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MLB needs another 1998 home run chase (hopefully without steroids) to rehab itself

What will the next event be that “saves” baseball?

BBN CARDINALS-CUBS SOSA MCGWIRE Photo credit should read JOHN ZICH/AFP via Getty Images

When I think of Major League Baseball’s current labor war and inability to reach an agreement on starting the 2020 season, I’m reminded of a classic scene from The Godfather.

In the basement of his father’s house, Michael is practicing how he’s going to murder Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey with Pete Clemenza, one of his father’s chief lieutenants. After some small talk and joking, Michael asks Clemenza how bad the coming war is going to be between the five families.

Michael: “How bad do you think it’s gonna be?”

Clemenza: “Pretty bad. Probably all the other five families will line up against us. But that’s alright, these things have gotta happen every five years or so, 10 years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. It’s been 10 years since the last one.”

Major League Baseball’s mafia-like war with the Player’s Union doesn’t flare up quite that often, thank goodness. In 1981 there was a strike that wiped away about one-third of the season, followed by the devastating strike of 1994 that eliminated a World Series and shortened parts of two seasons. That strike was so damaging to the game’s reputation (and didn’t get rid of any bad blood, obviously) that the parties involved knew another instance could cause irreparable harm to the game.

That’s why it’s been a quarter century since the last major labor flare-up, but boy oh boy do we have one now. MLB is likely going to implement a very short season (around 50 games or so), the Player’s Union is going to file a grievance, and both sides have accused the other of negotiating in bad faith.

Of course, without seeing the actual March 26 agreement, word-for-word, it’s impossible to know if MLB is telling the truth regarding their claim that the union entered into that agreement knowing that if there would be no fans in the stands that it would be re-opened. One would think if the language in that deal is that specific, the league would have leaked it by now.

But most of you don’t care about the details. You care that this season is likely to be much shorter than it should have been and that it will be played knowing that major labor trouble lies ahead in the form of a lockout or strike in the next year and a half.

What helped dig MLB out of its hole in the late-’90s was the Great HR Chase of 1998. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa began their one-on-one assault on the single season home run record, with each player leapfrogging the other in the big league dinger race until McGwire became the first player to break Roger Maris’ then-record of 61 home runs in a season, set in 1961. Sosa later followed and finished with 66, while McGwire established the record with 70.

That number has since been surpassed by Barry Bonds, with 73, although that HR chase has since lost some of its luster due to the realization that all these players were using performance enhancing drugs. But at the time, fans either didn’t know or didn’t want to know, and it’s fair to say that MLB officials probably didn’t want to know either. The chase helped save the game.

The home run chase led national newscasts on some nights. It was an event that forced the entire country, not just baseball fans, to focus on the game. It became the hot topic of conversation all summer among not just those of us who obsess about the game, but casual and non-fans alike. We all wanted to see if McGwire could do it, if Sosa could catch him, and just how many each player would hit.

Baseball might need another event like that to save it from itself, although whatever it is, it’s likely going to have to wait until next year, when we hopefully have a full 162 games to work with. If and when that happens, there are a couple things that might do the trick.

If another two hitters embarked on a journey to beat Bonds’ 73, that certainly would capture the nation’s attention. How about if someone came out of the blue and challenged Rickey Henderson’s single season stolen base record of 130? How about someone joining the 50/50 club (50 home runs and 50 stolen bases) for the first time?

All those events would certainly capture the nation’s attention, but none of them would compare to a player legitimately challenging Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, a streak that will almost certainly never be broken.

When a player gets on a roll and starts the hitting streak reaches the 30s, baseball fans start to notice. When it reaches the mid-30s, sports fans begin to take note. When it hits the upper 30s and lower 40s, it becomes a national news story. The first thing anyone wants to know when they wake up in the morning is, did Player X get a hit?

Only three players have crossed into the 40s threshold in the modern era: Pete Rose in 1978 (44), George Sisler in 1922 (41) and Ty Cobb in 1911 (40).

Jimmy Rollins came close in 2005-06 with his 38-game streak, 8th-longest in MLB history...

...while Chase Utley excited everyone with his 35-gamer in ‘06.

The day-in, day-out drama of a long hitting streak gets everyone excited and has the best chance of erasing whatever calamity the game of baseball is ready to inflict upon itself over these next few months.

On Episode 391 of Hittin’ Season, I talked about the ongoing labor war with Justin Klugh of Baseball Prospectus and Liz Roscher of Yahoo! Sports, so make sure to check out our thoughts on what’s happening and what lies ahead below! And please, subscribe, download, rate and review!!!