Thursday, August 23, 2007

Baseball, really, is all about numbers


I was at a slow-pitch softball tournament Wednesday night, so I wasn't surprised when I saw teams scoring 20-plus runs with ease.

When I walked over to the concession stand TV, however, and noticed that Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers had dropped 30 runs on the Baltimore Orioles, I was in shock.

Thirty runs? I knew ESPN statisticians would have a field day comparing that to various football scores... and Big Ten basketball scores — OK, just kidding (but, really, the Big Ten routinely plays games in the 40s).

But back to my point. It didn't matter that the Rangers (now 56-70 after completing the doubleheader sweep) are a pitiful team that hasn't been in the playoff race since April. No one cared that the game had close to no meaning for either team (the Orioles are a mediocre 58-67 — 17 games behind the Red Sox in the American League East).

Rather, late into the night baseball enthusiasts and historians alike were lauding the modern-day record for runs scored in a game. (The Chicago Colts — now the Cubs — scored 36 runs in 1897).

ESPN's Tim Kurkjian was on the verge of euphoria in describing the Rangers' feat. He was just one of many.

Yes, it was a special night for baseball.

A game that's all about the numbers.

What matters most
We can talk all we want about pennant races and the "intangibles," but nothing will ever take away baseball's moniker as a numbers sport.

How else can you explain the ridiculous coverage Barry Bonds' home run chase received this summer? Or even the attention paid to Chase Utley's hitting streak last year when he was still more than 20 games away from Joe DiMaggio's seemingly unbreakable record.

How else can you make sense of the attention paid to steroid use before these substances were proactively banned by commissioner Bud Selig. It's not like the Cream and the Clear were the reason the Marlins won the 2003 World Series. Rather, the use of such substances was ridiculed because baseball's sluggers (Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds, etc.) allegedly used them to break baseball's hallowed records.

Players like to say the only thing that matters is winning. And to a certain extent, they're right. But you couldn't look at Bonds' huge smile after No. 756 and believe that he would have exchanged breaking Hank Aaron's record for taking the San Francisco Giants back to the playoffs (coincidentally, the Giants — 55-72 — have been in last place of the National League West all season).

It's a numbers game, and always will be a numbers game.

There are so many statistics kept now, I can't even keep track. WHIP (whipped cream?). Not only OBP and SLG, but OPS (Online Packaging Service?).RC27... XBA... somebody get me a ginger ale, because I'm becoming dizzy.

While we recognize records in football and basketball, they don't receive close to the attention they do in America's Pastime. For instance, we know that Bonds' new record is the most hallowed in baseball, but what's the most revered mark in the other major sports?

Maybe you could say Wilt's 100 points in basketball, but even that's not clear cut. And I can't think of a particular football record that's always talked about. Sure, the all-time rushing record got a little attention when Emmitt Smith broke Walter Payton's mark, but let's not forget that Barry Sanders didn't even bother sticking around one more season to surpass "Sweetness."

I sure can't imagine Bonds hanging up the uniform 10 home runs shy of Hammering Hank. He probably would have played with one arm if he had to.

In the coming weeks, we'll move the Rangers' amazing feat to the rear of our minds' baseball compartment. We'll do likewise with Brandon Webb's 42-inning scoreless streak and instead focus on the Diamondbacks' improbable run to a division title. Pennant talk will dominate the airwaves.

But don't be naive to think that if another remarkable number is posted, it won't garner great attention.

It will. Whether it happens in April, August or October.

Because baseball — dating back to the days of the Chicago Colts — has always (and will always) be about the numbers.


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