Jose Reyes Backs Into Batting Title, Per Tradition

NEW YORK, NY: Jose Reyes #7 of the New York Mets lays down a first inning bunt single in his only at bat against the Cincinnati Reds at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

For the New York Mets, what began as a sour season -- thanks, Madoff! -- ended on a sweet note, as 40-year-old Miguel Batista pitched a two-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds.

Of course, this being the Mets, the season can't end without a small controversy. Jose Reyes, gunning for the National League batting title, laid down a bunt single in the first inning to lift his average to .337,  two points ahead of No. 2 man Ryan Braun ... and was promptly lifted from the game for a pinch-runner, eliciting boos from the Citi Field crowd.

Reyes reportedly asked to be lifted from the game, which of course elicits this historical comparison:

The decision to pull Reyes comes on the 70th anniversary of Ted Williams deciding to play in a doubleheader on the final day of the regular season in 1941 even though his .39955 average would have been rounded up to .400.

"If I'm going to be a .400 hitter, I'm going to be a .400 hitter all the way," Williams was quoted as saying at the time.

Williams went 6-for-8 in the twin bill to up his average to .406.

Two things about Williams' feat:

One, there is some question about the rounding-up thing. Yes, we would round up .39955 to .400. My personal opinion is that rounding up to a milestone isn't completely appropriate, but that's indeed what would happen. In 1941, though, the rules for such things weren't as codified as they are now. In some circles, at least, Williams would not have been considered a legitimate .400 hitter if his average were merely rounded up. Which might have played some small role in his decision to play in the first game of that doubleheader.

After collecting a hit in his first at-bat, he was never in any danger of falling below .400, and it's certainly possible that he would have stopped playing if a hitless at-bat would have dropped him below the magical mark. I don't mean to suggest that Williams seriously considered doing anything except exactly what he actually did. But there is room in this story for nuance that is almost universally ignored, because of course we don't generally appreciate nuance.

Second, while Ted Williams is always brought up when the subject of batting-average machinations comes up, and of course Williams is held up as a model of behavior, the truth is that the great majority of players have done what Williams did not do.

To cite just one of many dozens of examples ... in 1990, 37-year-old George Brett entered the last day of the season with a .328 batting average. The Royals had a doubleheader that day in Cleveland.

Brett did not start the first game. But in the fifth inning, Russ Morman led off with a double. Even though the Royals were trailing 3-0, Jeff Schulz laid down a sacrifice bunt, with Morman moving to third. This was apparently done for the sole reason of allowing Brett to pinch-hit with a runner on third base. If he got a hit, great; if he lofted a fly ball deep enough to score Morman, it wouldn't count against his batting average (which is a really stupid rule, but that's an argument for another day).

Well, Brett did hit a sacrifice fly and his batting average didn't move a tick. Brett did stay in the game, and improved his batting average to .329 with a single in the seventh. He was due up in the bottom of the ninth, but was lifted for pinch-hitter Bo Jackson.*

* Rejected Nike commercial: "Bo knows pinch-hitting for veteran to protect veteran's third batting title in three calendar decades if you count 1990 as the beginning of a new decade rather than the end of the old one."

Why all the machinations? Because Oakland's Rickey Henderson started the day with a .325 average, four points behind Brett. The Athletics' game began just a few minutes before the Royals' game. Henderson struck out in the first inning, but pushed his average to .326 with a single in the second. But he went back to .325 with a ground-out in the fifth, and that was it. By the time Brett batted in the seventh inning, there was nothing he could have done to lose the batting title, except go hitless in the first game and 0 for 4 in the second game.

Regardless, he didn't play in the second game at all.

Later, Brett would express his regret about not playing, and suggest that he wanted to play but everyone told him he shouldn't. Which I consider a pretty lousy excuse. As a Royals fan, I thought of George Brett as our version of Ted Williams, and I found his behavior galling. But as I've learned since, Brett's actions were perfectly in keeping with his peers over the years. As long as the statisticians have been keeping track of batting titles, players have been backing into them. I expected more from my hero, but in the end he behaved exactly as the great majority of his peers have always behaved, and will behave.

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