Streaks last forever

By Mike Szwaja

As fans, you and I have different things we love about sports. If The Daily Illini conducted a poll for sports fans on campus, asking participants to give 100 things they love about sports, every list would be different. That much is obvious.

The one thing I guarantee would show up on the majority of the lists would be streaks, and I’m not talking about a guy jumping over a railing and running across an outfield with nothing but an advertisement for a Las Vegas casino on his back.

I’m talking about hitting streaks, consecutive games streaks, losing streaks, and so on. Our culture is in love with streaks, and with good reason. Streaks often make for great stories. A good sports streak is like a live action novel – suspense, adversity, popularity.

We all remember the baseball strike of 1994. The fans lost interest quickly, and those who showed up after the strike were disgruntled. They wore T-shirts screen-printed with money signs in front of the MLB logo. Fans were ticked off, and it looked like baseball was swimming with sharks.

Take a look around the game today, and it’s obvious that baseball is doing just fine, with only a minor problem here and there – small market teams, high ticket prices and a lack of top-to-bottom quality pitching. But for the most part, baseball is as popular as ever.

Most people attribute the rebirth of baseball to the home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in 1998. Sammy and Big Mac did their part, but most of the fans were back by then. Three years prior to the year of the long ball, Cal Ripken Jr. was the one who saved baseball.

For two months at the end of the 1995 season, we all fell in love with Ripken’s chase of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak. When he finally surpassed Gehrig on Sept. 7, the scene closely resembled that of a carnival. The Orioles stopped the game, Ripken made a speech, took a few laps around the field and waved to the crowd about three dozen times. Fireworks blasted over the warehouse in right field at Camden Yards, and huge numbers on the side of the building read 2131.

In retrospect, it was probably a bit overblown. I often wonder if the celebration would have been less extravagant had the strike not scarred the game one year prior. Was it a byproduct of the MLB public relations department? Probably, but who cared? They knew baseball fans loved the aura that surrounded a streak, so they went nuts and it worked. We all fell for it. It got us interested in baseball again.

On Sunday, Brett Favre will make his 191st consecutive start with the Packers – about 12 seasons worth of games. When you consider the beating an NFL quarterback takes, that’s simply amazing. What makes Favre’s streak even better is that it hasn’t been easy. He struggled with interceptions. He played with broken fingers. He even played the day after his father died.

That’s all tough to do. Just take a look at Kurt Warner. A bad finger ruined his career.

Some day, Favre’s consecutive starts streak with be the first thing listed under his bronze bust in Canton – ahead of the MVP awards and the Super Bowl championship. The streak is what makes Favre special. Aikman, Elway and Montana – they all have the Super Bowl rings and the MVPs. They don’t have the streak.

This past summer, Carlos Lee of the White Sox embarked on a 28-game hitting streak. I was at four of those games, and being in the stands was a unique experience. When Lee came to the plate, everyone in the stands was watching, something that is less common every day at the modern ballpark – another story for another time.

And when the bat cracked at the ball, and the crowd realized the hit streak was one game longer, the energy coming from the fans was unmatched. They were the loudest cheers I heard at The Cell all summer.

I can only imagine being in Yankee Stadium, watching Joe DiMaggio work his way through the famous 56-game hitting streak in 1941 – in an era when people went to the ballpark to actually watch the game. DiMaggio’s streak was so big, it actually kicked Adolf Hitler to the inside pages of American newspapers.

Streaks are often what sets apart the great athletes. Stories of great streaks live on. Baseball fans today know DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games, but few know how many World Series he won. Years from now, we’ll know Ripken holds his record, but few will remember he actually won a World Series in 1983. Streaks live on, so when the next great one comes along, latch onto it before it’s over.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]