“Stepping up to the plate now for the Washington Nationals is right fielder Bryce Harper,” Major League Baseball announcer John Smoltz said. “What do you think of his chances here against Clayton Kershaw?”
“Well John, according to our team of treasure hunters over at Fox Sports Stats and Analysis —” said Joe Buck, the channel’s resident inflatable talking point — “Bryce Harper has never gotten out, while facing against Kershaw, at home, on Tuesday nights, in May, when the humidity is between 67.4 and 68.2 percent and he’s got a golf-ball-sized-or-bigger wad of grape flavor Big League Chew tucked into the left cheek of his mouth. Now, this situation has yet to arise in his career, but nonetheless, he has never, ever, gotten out in such a moment.”
You might have realized somewhere between “inflatable talking point” and “Big League Chew,” that the above conversation, at least to my knowledge, did not happen. But, it was probably closer to the latter than the former that you realized I was exaggerating, because our obsession with arbitrary numbers and meaningless records in sports has gotten out of hand.
You might have watched the National Basketball Association’s resident lighting rod, Russell Westbrook, tie and then break the single-season record for most triple-doubles, statlines which include double-digit tallies in three major statistical categories. If you were pretty much anywhere else on the face of the earth, you probably still caught wind of it — in a dining hall, on the discovery page of Instagram, or 400 feet deep in a coal mine.
That we have decided to set double digits as our benchmark, however, is completely arbitrary. Am I supposed to believe that Westbrook had a better game if he dropped 10 assists, 10 rebounds and 10 points than if he dropped 62 points, 25 rebounds and nine assists? Absolutely not. But if he had done so this season, fans would have marveled at the game but wondered why he couldn’t have gotten that one extra assist to fill out that third column with two numbers.
And that is often where the problem lies. Westbrook tied the record for season triple-doubles on April 4; in the following game, he set out to stand alone at the summit of the record books. But he failed. He nailed 23 points, secured 12 rebounds but only managed to dish out eight assists.
In case you were wondering whether he was counting his stats as the game progressed, he was. In the final offensive possessions of the game, Westbrook gave up wide-open looks to place the ball in his teammates’ hands. If you were wondering whether the Suns knew how many assists Westbrook had, they did. Westbrook found himself wide open because the Suns left him wide open. When he passed up on open shots, they fouled his teammates before they could get a shot off in order to assure the point guard couldn’t rack up the requisite assist. Not to mention the fact that Suns star Devon Booker actually said, “I’m sure he’s going to pass [previous record-holder] Oscar [Robertson] … But I just didn’t want it to be here.”
The triple-double, of course, is not the only stat to which we cling. We here at Yale fall victim to such benchmark chasing as well. In the 2015–16 Yale men’s basketball season, forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 broke the record for most consecutive made field goals in NCAA Division I basketball history. A story in the News, on Feb. 6, 2016, highlighted Sherrod’s impressive feat.
The authors laid out the history of the record, the teams against which it spanned and the result of the game in which the streak started and broke. But even those authors fell victim to the aura of the stat, failing to mention that, with the help of Sherrod’s streak, Yale was riding a nine-game win streak of its own.
Former Yale men’s hockey captain and current National Hockey League forward John Hayden ’17 finished his collegiate season tied for 72nd in the NCAA in points, the traditional category by which we evaluate offensive players’ seasons. But ask any one of Hayden’s teammates, the Chicago Blackhawks — who signed him one day after his season ended at Yale — or any fan at Yale’s games, and they will tell you that his value far surpassed that old-school stat’s indication.
Hayden drew the attention of the defenses against him, opening the way for fellow linesman Joe Snively ’19 to rack up even more points than the current NHL player. Hayden was an absolute menace who at 6-foot-3 pressed on the forecheck, dealt out glass-rattling checks, crashed the goal and forced opposing goalies to smother shots rather than deflect them. Maybe most importantly, and certainly least quantifiably, he was the team’s leader.
In what has become a common trend in sports, Hayden’s counting stats belied the value he brought to his team at Ingalls Rink. The antiquated way of quantifying talent via points, assists or rebounds does not tell the full story. When we get caught up in tallying triple-doubles or breaking records that don’t directly result in the outcome of the game, we often lose sight of what matters most in sports: winning. Sometimes we miss what is so great about our favorite players — how they force opposition to game plan around them, how they elevate their teammates’ levels of play or how they bring heart to the game. These, more so than numbers, are the qualities that win games.
We shouldn’t appreciate athletes just for their gaudy stats or tangential records. We should appreciate them for driving our teams to victories.