When I was six years old, Ray Knight embarked on one of the great home run campaigns of all time.
Knight had never hit more than 14 home runs in a single season, but got off to a roaring start, with six homers in his first 12 games. Hitting a cool .394/.447/.970, Knight seemed ready to challenge for the Triple Crown while also on pace to easily break Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs.
At least this is how it looked to me, at age six. My father gave me a dose of reality, letting me know that while Knight could be having an uncommon, Norm Cash-style season, in all likelihood, the home runs would slow down. Knight might not even hit .390!
I often think of this early lesson in baseball statistics. Knight, of course, finished with 11 home runs, meaning he hit one fewer in his remaining 125 games than in his first 12. (Still, he did have a little power left for the postseason, you may recall.)
So why, after Knight's example and countless others like it, am I allowing myself to root for Rod Barajas to set the single-season record for home runs by a catcher? I figured the best way to either reinforce my optimism -- or provide myself a dose of reality -- was to talk to the man himself. Barajas may not believe he's going to challenge the record (43, held by Javy Lopez) quite yet, but is clearly enjoying the ride anyway.
"I'm not sure I would say this is my best groove," Barajas told me as we talked at his locker following Wednesday's game against the Nationals. "But I definitely feel comfortable at the plate. My hands are working pretty well, getting my bat through the zone."
The pleasure in watching Barajas is that he knows what his strengths and weaknesses are, and brings intelligence toward using the former and accepting the latter.
What he does well is punish mistake pitches and handle pitchers. What he does poorly is draw walks and hit for a high average. And his 2010, even if his home run pace were to level off, is merely a continuation of that pattern for the Mets.
There has been no attempt to change what kind of hitter he is. When I asked him if he thought that, given the way he was punishing mistakes this season, pitchers might stop throwing him any hittable pitches, he reacted as if the thought hadn't even crossed his mind.
"Pitch selection? Not really," Barajas said. "I'm hitting in the eighth spot, so they're not going to tend to pitch around you. So I expect to keep getting these opportunities."
And the amazing part is, he's been right. Though he didn't hit any home runs this weekend, he took a walk, jumping his season total all the way to four, and added four hits -- including a double -- and an RBI. In a lineup spot that once made Victor Diaz look selective, Barajas keeps on doing what he's done for well over a decade: Swinging at everything, providing power, and catching a good game.
Unfortunately, this weekend of singles and doubles knocked Barajas' pace down from 48 home runs as of last Wednesday all the way down to 38 home runs. That would put him behind not only Lopez, but both Mike Piazza and Todd Hundley for single-season home run marks by a Met. Another homer-less week, and he'll be around the pace of Gary Carter's 32 bombs in 1985.
From a baseball perspective, this makes sense. Barajas is 34; his career-high in home runs is 21. He hit 19 last year. So his nine home runs probably are a statistical outlier, like the seven he hit in September 2005 for Texas.
But Barajas is not above dreaming about a fluke season, one that puts his name among the great Mets power-hitting catchers. Barajas agreed that the home run record for catchers is, in many ways, more impressive than the overall mark, given the amount of work that goes into catching regularly, along with the many dangers that come from crouching behind the plate.
"And it's great to hit homers," Barajas said, flashing a smile. "Everybody wants to be thought of in that company."
But don't expect Barajas to face any of the problems Roger Maris had. He said he's not concerned that his hair will fall out from stress, and his teammates agree he hasn't let his new place among the National League home run leaders go to his head.
"No, he's the same guy I remembered watching in Arizona," said Ike Davis, who has talked about the guidance Barajas has given him since he was called up. "Great catcher, good power bat. It's been fun getting the chance to watch it up close."
Perhaps the biggest reason to root for Barajas to make history is so that he can place himself among catchers who have had more productive offensive careers than he has. His joy for the game is palpable. So while he wasn't ready to endorse a call for his number to be retired should he hit 50 home runs, he did think of a legacy already.
"If I could manage, at least for a season, to be doing something that special, to be remembered for all time ... it would be great."