The numbers do lie
By Bob Halloran
Special to Page 2

Watching Emmitt Smith break Walter Payton's record yesterday, I was struck by two thoughts: First, it didn't exactly equal the drama and high-level anticipation of Hank Aaron's 715th or Mark McGwire's 62nd, did it? And second, having the most doesn't necessarily make you the best. For instance, just because you have the most arrogance and the most luck doesn't make you America's best bachelor ... Aaron Buerge. If I were one of those women, I'd tell you exactly what you could do with those roses.

Emmitt Smith
Just because you have the numbers, it doesn't make you the best.
Dan Marino had the most passing yards, but that doesn't make him the best quarterback. Anybody who thinks he was usually surrenders the argument when somebody else shows a picture of Marino's naked fingers -- the one's that aren't adorned by that cumbersome piece of jewelry known as a Super Bowl ring.

Serving the most food doesn't make some place the best restaurant. Getting the most laughs doesn't make you the best comedian. Sometimes it just means you're Gallagher smashing a watermelon. Loaning me the most money doesn't make you my best friend -- though it's a good place to start. Having the most friends doesn't mean you can be a best friend. And getting the most votes doesn't even make you President of the United States.

"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" not only has the most redundant title, but it also had the most viewers the week of October 14. Can we say unequivocally that it's the best show on television? "Titanic" holds the record for grossing the most money at the box office. Best movie ever? The female solo artist with the most No. 1 albums is Barbara Streisand with eight. Are you kidding me? If you go by record sales, you'd have to say the soundtrack to "The Bodyguard" is the 10th best album in the history of the world. I refuse to believe that could be true. So, I choose to believe something else.

It's simple really. The numbers tell us who's great, but our eyes and our pounding hearts let us know who's best. It's not an exact science. But, if you just paint by numbers, you'll miss the delicate strokes, the subtle details, and the magic on the canvas. The numbers say Cal Ripken. Our eyes say Ozzie Smith. The numbers say "The Bodyguard," but our ears tell us U2's "Joshua Tree."

Emmitt Smith has the numbers, and they're a testament to his excellence, his consistency, his durability. Judging by the numbers, a strong case could be made that Emmitt is the best ever. Eleven straight 1,000-yard seasons, and of course, the most yards. But we've all watched Emmitt, watched him at his best. We watched him win Super Bowls. We watched him get up more than 3,000 times. We watched and we appreciated, but we were never in awe. He's been very, very good for a very, very long time. Does that make him the best? Maybe to you. Not to me.

Barry Sanders
Sanders didn't stick around to break the all-time record.
Emmitt wasn't even the best running back in the NFL during his prime. That was Barry Sanders. Personally, I don't even think he's the best back the Cowboys have ever had. That was Tony Dorsett. Emmitt just isn't that fast, or that big, or that shifty. Basically, he's not all that. But he's got the record, so we'll be obligated to include his credentials in any discussion of the best runningbacks in the history of the NFL. He's earned that much and maybe more. But if you watched Sanders and Dorsett, or Payton, or Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, Jim Brown, Earl Campbell or Marshall Faulk play, then you have your own idea about who's the best ever.

We've become a bit obsessed with numbers. Most catches, yards, completions. Most RBI, consecutive games, shut-outs, saves, penalty minutes -- whatever! Most home runs on the road when hitting behind in the count against lefties with the first name beginning with a vowel. We're living in a time with the most "mosts" and the best "bests" ever. But once in a while, you have to throw out the numbers and let your eyes speak the truth.

This is the kind of thing that keeps sports fans debating late into the evening, solving nothing. But it's a theory that has some legs. Think about all these other examples:

  • Wayne Gretzky had the most goals, assists and the most MVP Awards in any of the major sports, but was he the best hockey player ever? He was certainly the best goal-scorer, though Mario Lemieux fans could make a case. Still, Bobby Orr revolutionized the game, and won a scoring title as a defenseman. There are two sides to the ice, you know.
  • Hank Aaron hit the most home runs in a career, and Barry Bonds hit the most home runs in a single season, but the distinction of best home run hitter will almost certainly always belong to Babe Ruth.
  • Pete Rose had the most hits, and Ty Cobb had the most batting titles, but the best hitter was Ted Williams.
  • Cy Young had 511 wins. That's about 70 percent more than any pitcher will ever win again. Yet, was he the best? Heck, the guy never even won a Cy Young Award. Roger Clemens has won the most of those. Is he the best pitcher of all-time? Nolan Ryan had the most strikeouts. Is he the best pitcher?
  • The Clampetts probably had the most money of any television family in history, but that didn't make them the smartest. I gotta think the Huxtables were the smartest.
  • Kareem Abdul Jabbar
    Kareem isn't even the best guy in those Tostitos commercials.

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored the most points, but he wasn't even the best player on his own team at the time.
  • Pete Sampras has won the most Grand Slams, but his record on clay and, in particular the French Open, leaves enough room for doubt that Bjorn Borg was the best.
  • Madonna is the female artist with the most No. 1 hits, but would anyone argue that she's the best at anything other than the ability to market slutty behavior to pre-pubescent girls?
  • Clearly, having the most doesn't make you the best. Though we should probably create some sort of Jerry Rice Exception. With the most catches, most yards, most touchdowns, and many more "mosts," Rice is without a doubt the best receiver of all-time. I don't think anyone would argue otherwise.

    Another who might qualify under Rule 80 (Rice's number) would be Martina Navratilova. But Emmitt Smith isn't the Exception or the Rule. He's just a tremendous athlete who will hold a record for a while, until someone else comes along to break it. Maybe that guy will be the best ever, but somehow, I doubt it.

    By the way, saying the most words doesn't mean you'll make the best point.

    But I tried.

    Bob Halloran is an anchorman for ESPNEWS.





    NUMBERS GAME

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