This week, I was watching the World Series on Fox when Joe Buck suddenly announced that Emmitt Smith is only 93 yards away from Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. Although breaking this record will be a significant achievement, there seems to be very little media hype about the whole event. This brought my attention to the importance of records in professional sports.
Records just don’t seem to have that much value in the NFL. Maybe the reason for this is that the numbers change too frequently to allow them to become imprinted on our minds.
Once Smith breaks Walter Payton’s rushing mark, almost all of football’s all-time records will be held by either active players or athletes who retired within the last few years. Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith are the leaders in touchdowns. Rice and the recently activated Chris Carter are the top two in all-time receiving yards. Even the top two in field goals kicked, Gary Andersen and Morten Andersen, are active players. How can anyone appreciate these records if they change from week to week? Records are made to be broken — but not every week.
The apathy toward records seems to be a general trend in the NBA and NHL as well. Sure, many people know about Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game or Jordan’s record-setting 63 in a playoff game. However, it is hard to pin down other figures. Since Stockton set the record for assists in 1995, there haven’t been any real record chases in the NBA. The NHL might have the exploits of former Detroit Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman to thank for some record recognition, but Bowman retired this summer at the end of his record-setting championship season.
While other major sports struggle to find high-profile records that are within present players’ reach, baseball has no problem knocking over marks that are longstanding testaments to a player’s proficiency and talent. Maybe I’m biased as a baseball fan, but there are plenty of records that any sports layman can rattle off with ease. Hank Aaron hit 755 career home runs. The regular season record is Barry Bonds’ 73 in 2001. Before that it was McGwire’s 70 in 1998, Maris’ 61 in 1961, and Babe Ruth’s 60 in 1927. People know that Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games in 1941, or that Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400 in that same year. Cal Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games, breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130. They know that Pete Rose’s record for hits is 4,256 and that Nolan Ryan’s strikeout total is 5,714.
OK, maybe these numbers are starting to get a little obscure. However, the point is that baseball has significant numbers that fans can recognize.
Furthermore, the pursuit of records manages to captivate baseball fans. In recent memory, record chases have been baseball’s best selling point. When Ripken eclipsed Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak in September of 1995, this moment was credited with bringing fans back to baseball after the strike. Nothing seemed to generate more media attention than the home run chase of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Barry Bonds’s 73-homer performance was the buzz of last season.
The emphasis that baseball fans place on records can be exemplified by the Top 10 Moments list Major League Baseball unveiled on Wednesday night. Granted, I thought there were several moments that were wrongfully excluded from the list. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the top-10 list generated by the fans was replete with record-breaking performances. Ripken’s moment was first. Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, which broke Babe Ruth’s record, was second. The home run chase of 1998 was fourth. Pete Rose breaking the all-time hits record was sixth. Ted Williams being the last player to hit .400 (though at .406 not a record), as well as DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak were seventh and eighth. At 10th was Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter, also a record.
Baseball relies on the richness of its history more than any other major men’s professional sport. When a record chase occurs, fans are once again connected with the game’s past events. Unfortunately for Emmitt Smith, records in other sports don’t have the same value.