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Why Some Baseball Records Will Never Be Broken (And Which Ones Might)

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If there's anyone who is qualified to comment on the evolution of rules and conditions in baseball, it's John Thorn. He is a prolific writer on the history of the game and the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball. I talked to Thorn about some of the conventionally considered "unbreakable" baseball records and what makes them unbreakable—or if they even are.

Baseball's Unbreakable Records

Cy Young: 511 Career Wins, 749 Career Complete Games

Cy Young's career ended over a century ago, but his legacy lives on in the award named in his honor that celebrates the best pitcher in each league every year. He is a fitting source of aspiration as the record holder for most career wins and most career complete games in baseball history. A member of MLB's "All-Century Team," Young was an undeniably top-rate pitcher, but to achieve those specific records—and keep them out of reach from any modern ace—he had a little help from the era in which he played.

"No one will get to 511 career wins because we don’t have a four-man rotation. In fact, for much of Young’s career he was in a three-man rotation with the fourth starter being the spot starter, as the fifth starter came to be in the 1950s and ‘60s," Thorn says.

Not only did Young get more chances on the mound, but the turn of the century was also particularly pitcher-friendly. "Young pitched in the dead-ball era, which means that not only did he pitch more frequently but he was facing softer lineups. There were two or three batting positions in every club that you could coast by."

It's hard to overstate how dissimilar baseball now is from what it once was. Simple changes, such as the number of baseballs used in each game can tip the scales slightly on who has the advantage in each at bat. "Now, if a ball is fouled off at the plate it is discarded. Then, unless a ball split in half, it might go six or seven innings or perhaps even a whole game. So those batters who batted at the end of the game were facing a mushier, discolored ball."

As evidenced by his record-setting complete games, Young pitched to a decision more frequently than his modern counterparts with their risk-averse inning limits. For all these reasons, baseball will probably never again have the perfect storm of ability and conditions to challenge his records, which we can deem unbreakable.

Old Hoss Radbourn: 59 Single Season Wins

Radbourn's baseball career ended before the 20th century even began, which means that his record has held longer than any other on this list and that the game conditions were very, very different. For one thing, the season was even shorter then—just 112 games—which makes this feat that much more impressive. But wildly counteracting that is the fact that, much like in the case of Young, Radbourn had a lot more chances to get a win.

These days, cracking 20 wins on the season practically guarantees a pitcher Cy Young award contention, but consider that the most games even started by a pitcher in 2013 was 34. In 1884, when Radbourn won those record-setting 59 games, he made 73 starts. Even compared to his contemporaries on the mound, that was a notable number of starts. But Radbourn had more than just a different set of conventions on his side.

"Radburn’s pitching style was pretty much underhand and sidearm," Thorn says. "When you’re throwing underhand, which is a more natural physiological motion, you can pitch more innings."

None of this is intended to diminish Radbourn's accomplishment; with just 12 losses he also led the league in win-loss percentage that year. But it does put the record well out of modern reach, at least until another submariner comes along.

Joe DiMaggio: 56-Game Hitting Streak in 1941 (and other offensive feats)

This record is will likely remain unmatched for the foreseeable future simply as a testament to DiMaggio's place as one of the best hitters who ever played. But there is a related detail that Thorn considers even more untouchable.

In 1941, the same year that he strung together his record-setting streak, DiMaggio struck out just 13 times in 541 at-bats. He played in the 1930s and '40s, but several decades earlier, the ratio for great hitters was even more pronounced. In 1897, Hall-of-Famer Willie Keeler led the league with a .424 batting average and 239 hits. In the 564 at bats he took that year, Keeler struck out just five times.

These offensive records—DiMaggio's hitting streak, Keeler's strike out ratio, and Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average—are tied to factors that have since changed, including, as Thorn calls it, a "style factor." "There is no longer a stigma attached to striking out," he says. "The object of the game from the 1850s on was to put the ball in play, allow the fielders to have a chance and run like crazy."

These days, both the number of strikeouts and walks is way up as pitchers nibble the edge of the plate and batters practice patience to up their on-base percentage. And, accordingly, high batting averages and the frequency of balls-in-play (the sort of thing a talented player like DiMaggio needs for a 56-game hitting streak) are down.

According to Thorn, "Baseball is such a delicate mechanism that you can make the slightest adjustment in either rules or custom and practices and have a huge impact on the balance between offense and defense."

Baseball's "Unbreakable" Records (That May Be Broken)

Mariano Rivera: 652 Career Saves

People were calling Mo's save record unbreakable before the Yankees closer even retired at the end of last season, which naturally resulted in one hell of a farewell tour. He has 51 more saves than runner-up Trevor Hoffman and 174 more than third place Lee Smith, but can we really call it unbreakable less than a year after it was set?

"No," says Thorn. "My crystal ball is cloudy on this but the save is an elective statistic, like the stolen base, and it is entirely dependent on a manager’s usage."

You don't have to pitch much to get a save, you just have to pitch at the right time. A manager could choose to use a pitcher in save situations—not just to boost the reliever's number but also presumably because he thrives under pressure—and thus give him lots of opportunities to record a save without subjecting him to too many innings.

"It has come to be the pattern that almost all Major League managers reserve their best relief pitcher for the ninth inning," Thorn says. "They do not bring him in for the middle of the eighth except in dire circumstance or in September or in October. Specialization is the trend in the species, not only in sport, and it’s irresistible. So it would not surprise me if someday someone were to top Rivera’s record if we continue to use many pitchers in a ballgame."

Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer baseball has seen—so far. But it might be that he's the best closer to have the right combination of opportunities so far. With no disrespect to Sandman, this one could be broken.

Nolan Ryan: Seven Career No-Hitters

It's just seven, after all. But no-hitters are few and far between. Second-place Sandy Koufax threw four no-hitters, and no other pitcher has tossed more than three. Ryan and Koufax are both Hall of Fame pitchers but ultimately a no-hitter is, as Thorn says, "something of a freakshow stat."

Ryan's no-hitters, and even more so his record-setting career strikeouts, are a testament to what he was like as a pitcher. "He was the most feared and least hittable when he was at the top of his game," Thorn says. But there's a lot of luck involved in racking up a number of no-hitters. Thorn thinks there are equally intimidating pitchers today who could twirl their way into the record books if they can stick around long enough.

"I don’t think it’s unbreakable. You could look at today’s pitchers and say maybe Stephen Strasburg, maybe Aroldis Chapman if he transformed into a starting pitcher. There’s the Sidd Finch factor here, somebody’s gonna come along throwing 110 mph and no one is going to be able to hit him, it’ll take a while to catch up." (Finch is the fictional pitcher who was invented by George Plimpton for an April Fools Day issue of Sports Illustrated. The English orphan-turned-yogi-turned-Mets-pitcher supposedly threw 168 mph.)

Even Chapman can't match the subject of Plimpton's hoax for speed, but Thorn says athletes improve every 20 years. With pitchers throwing ever harder it will take batters some time to catch up, leaving this record vulnerable to being broken.

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The First High Five Recorded in the History of Sports
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We don’t quite know who invented the high five—but we can pinpoint the moment it became inextricably linked with sports, which the short documentary The High Five explores below.

On October 2, 1977, Los Angeles Dodgers leftfielder Dusty Baker scored his 30th home run, making the team the first in history to have four players—Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, and Reggie Smith—with at least 30 homers under each of their belts. Fellow outfielder Glenn Burke was so overwhelmed with joy and pride, he raised his arm and slapped his flat palm against the victorious athlete’s own palm. The moment transformed Baker and Burke into legends.

Sadly, the latter player faced hard times ahead: Burke was gay, and it’s believed that his sexuality prompted team officials to trade him to the Oakland A's the following year. In Oakland, Burke clashed with team manager Billy Martin, then retired early from baseball. Today, Burke is remembered for his charisma and talent—and for transforming a simple gesture into a universal symbol. “To think his energy and personality was the origin of that, that’s a pretty good legacy,” sportswriter Lyle Spencer says in the film.

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11 Outrageous Ballpark Foods
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Major League ballpark food has gone way beyond peanuts, Cracker Jacks, and the all-American hot dog. Now you can enjoy full meals, international cuisine, and eye-popping, gut-busting specialty dishes concocted for maximum publicity. Let's sample some of the outrageous dishes available at baseball games this year.

1. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES // TRIPLE TRIPLE BURGER

Wayback Burger has the ultimate meat-lover's burger at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Watch the Phillies while eating a Triple Triple Burger with nine beef patties and nine slices of cheese. And some veggies, if you can find them.

2. NEW YORK METS // BACON S'MORES ON A STICK

First seen in 2015, Pig Guy still offers S‘mores Bacon on a Stick at Citi Field. That's a slice of thick bacon dipped in marshmallow, chocolate, and graham cracker crumbs …on a stick. If you so choose, there are other toppings available for your bacon on a stick, like Sriracha maple glaze or salted caramel.

3. SEATTLE MARINERS // OAXACAN CHAPULINES

Served by Edgar's Cantina, the authentic Oaxacan chapulines debuting this year at Safeco Field in Seattle are "toasted grasshoppers with chile-lime salt seasoning." [PDF] They sold out on opening day, and the ballpark moved more grasshoppers in three games than Edgar's home restaurant Poquitos serves in a year!

4. SEATTLE MARINERS // MADE-TO-ORDER ICE CREAM SANDWICHES

Not in the mood for toasted grasshoppers? There are plenty of sweet treats available at Safeco Field in Seattle, including the made-to-order deluxe frozen custard cookie sandwiches from Frozen Rope Sandwich Company. As you can see, they come with extras.

5. COLORADO ROCKIES // ROCKY MOUNTAIN OYSTERS

In case you don't know what Rocky Mountain oysters are, they're bull testicles that are sliced and deep-fried. Not only are they a huge hit throughout Colorado, they've been a staple at Rockies games for 20 years.

6. TEXAS RANGERS // TEXAS SNOWBALL

New for 2017, you'll be able to try the Texas Snowballs at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. It's made of chopped brisket and barbecue sauce rolled into a ball and covered with funnel cake batter. It is then deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Is it an entree or a dessert? That's your decision.

7. TEXAS RANGERS // CHOOMONGOUS

Choomongous is both a sandwich and a description. This staple at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, is a 24-inch Korean beef sandwich that was crafted in 2014 in honor of Texas Ranger outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. The sandwich is stuffed with Korean-spiced beef, spicy slaw, and Sriracha-infused mayo. Your best advice is to split it with a friend or two.

8. HOUSTON ASTROS // CHICKEN AND WAFFLE CONE

Watch baseball at Minute Maid Park and use only one hand to eat a full dinner. The Chicken and Waffle Cone puts fried chicken fingers and mashed potatoes inside a large waffle cone with honey-mustard sauce on top. The fan favorite is in its third year of satisfying hungry Astros fans.

9. MILWAUKEE BREWERS // INSIDE THE PARK NACHOS

Miller Park in Milwaukee is the home of Inside the Park Nachos, which is basically taco meat on a stick that is rolled in crushed Doritos, fried, and served with cheese sauce, sour cream, and salsa.

10. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS // CHURRO DOG 2.0

Chase Field in Phoenix first served the Churro Dog in 2015. This is not the ballpark hot dog you're used to, but an 1100-calorie dessert. The "dog" is a cinnamon churro, the "bun" is a split Long John donut, and the toppings are frozen yogurt, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and whipped cream. For 2017, the Churro Dog 2.0 comes dressed up in Oreos! The churro is rolled in crushed Oreo cookies, strawberry topping replaces the caramel, and then a generous helping of more Oreo crumbs is sprinkled on top.

11. MINNESOTA TWINS // TRIPLE SAUSAGE BLOODY MARY

Target Field is offering a new Bloody Mary during Twins games. Hrbek's Pub supplies the new Triple Sausage Bloody Mary, a Bloody Mary with deluxe garnishes including three varieties of sausage (brat, Polish, and andouille), in addition to cheese cubes, peppers, and various fruits and vegetables. You can get a variation with a hamburger garnish if you like!

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