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Statistics and Legacies

Sports at La CoffeeMelodie Suite - The Coffee Corner

Statistics are fascinating. Even more so, statistics in sports are generated and dissected more so than one could ever imagine, and the proliferation of computers has been like fuel to the fire. Now, you can watch a baseball game on television and learn that the batter hasn't hit a 1 - 2 pitch in the seventh inning or later out of the infield to the opposite field since August 23, 2006. I mean: who cares?

"There are lies, damn lies and statistics." So goes the famous line attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, and there is no doubt that statistics have been used and abused to explain and to justify almost anything.

For many, statistics have become something unto themselves: fantasy football is a great case in point. This is not to say that studying statistics is invaluable. It's nice to know that someone is batting .340 or .230, or that a particular player has a better +/- than another. But some of these statistics strain usability.

Statistics often eventually lead us to the discussion of comparative and historical hypotheticals: "How would Babe Ruth have fared in today's baseball?" or "How great would Wilt Chamberlain have been had he been on the Celtics instead of Bill Russell?"

How can we ever know?

I was listening to a well-known sports journalist recently saying that he felt Roger Federer wasn't the greatest tennis player of all time because he hadn't proved himself against stiff competition the way he believed Pete Sampras or Ken Rosewall had. Huh? The reason Roger Federer's competition is viewed as inferior is because Federer has won EVERYTHING. How can you say someone isn't as great as someone from another era simply because his opponents haven't won a lot? What is Federer supposed to do, lose? Well, sure: that'd give his opponents more supposed credibility, but at the expense of his own legacy. What a crock.

Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. These are just some of the greatest. Would Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlain have dominated today the way they did when they played? Probably not. But it's not a fair comparison. Today's athletes are afforded advantages that yesterday's didn't have, including training methods and salaries that are beyond imagining.

The games themselves have changed, as well. Baseball's strike zone has become much smaller and batters aren't thrown at as much. Football's rules change constantly, and it would be interesting to see how today's quarterbacks would hold up in the bygone era where quarterbacks were routinely smashed to the ground on nearly every play. Basketball is much more like football, both in terms of physicality and in how much players can run with the ball.

The use of statistics can only take us so far. What really matters is how great an athlete was in relation to his peers. Nothing less, nothing more. In individual sports this is easy to determine, of course, while the evaluation of athletes participating in team sports is more difficult. Statistics can help, too, but they're not the exclusive tool. Let's look at success and peer admiration, as well, and let's stop using statistics such as the "on-base- percentage after a 2 - 1 count during the second half of August."

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