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A late-season threat to Williams's historic .406

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It was a striking, even nostalgic tableau here earlier this week during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Colorado Rockies.

The Rockies' first baseman, Todd Helton, in the grips of a dramatic attempt to become the first major leaguer to hit .400 or more since Ted Williams batted .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941, had just blooped a single to center field. He was standing on first visiting with Braves' first baseman Andres Galarraga.

They laughed. Laughing is great when life is grand and your average is .400.

It was a moment in time. That's because Galarraga, arguably the most popular of the former Rockies, made a similarly serious run at .400 just seven summers ago when he was Colorado's first baseman.

So Galarraga is one of the very few to truly understand the perils and the pressures. He finished 1993 hitting a brilliant .370 but light years below .400.

As the two stood there in the dazzling beauty of a perfect summer evening at Coors Field, baseball was at its best.

It was today challenging yesterday. It was the whippersnapper (Helton is only in his third full year as a big leaguer) threatening the old master. Baseball is never better than when its past and its future come together as one. Conventional wisdom, although often wrong, is that Helton won't be hitting .400 at season end. The reason, of course, is that thousands have tried since 1941 and all have fallen short. It's not that it can't happen but that it hasn't happened.

Asked about hitting .400 for the year, Helton says, "That's something I won't think about until the season is over."

A former quarterback for the University of Tennessee football team, Helton has the highest batting average for this late in the season since Kansas City star George Brett was at .400 in September 1980. Brett finished at .390. In 1994, San Diego's Tony Gwynn hit .394, the closest ever to Williams's .406.

Hitting .400 - which means averaging four hits for every 10 attempts - was not a big deal for decades. A number of players did it several times, including Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, and Jesse Burkett. In 1894, Hugh Duffy hit .438 for Boston.

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