Numbers and Sense


Tim Wakefield won his 200th game last night. Mariano Rivera got his 600th save against the Mariners. The two are fairly independent milestones that happened to occur on the same day.

This post will not debate which achievement is better or more importantr. That doesn’t matter and, of course, is not a universal feeling anyone can really attribute to anything at all. The interesting part is why they matter, and that answer may be even more difficult to determine.

For the most part, wins suck when it comes to evaluating a pitcher’s true value. There are dozens of stats that do a better job explaining why Tim Wakefield is important to the Boston Red Sox. The same goes with Rivera in the Bronx, but there is something remarkably definite about a win or a save. The idea of a game completed, a termination point, makes those things incredibly concrete for a baseball fan.

To consider that Wakefield has given Boston 200 wins is impressive, despite the fact that he’s most certainly contributed to dozens and dozens of other wins where the run support came late; or even pitched well in games where it never came at all. Rivera’s milestone seems even more astounding — putting 600 games in the win column for a single team — but even that stat doesn’t tell Rivera’s story.

Joe Posnanski wrote an excellent SI piece about Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit and asked the same questions about a number’s significance. The question is never really answered because there is no proper way to approach it. It matters and it doesn’t. To everyone.

As baseball analysis slowly shifts and changes, the statistics we value fluctuate. But the reasons these milestones matter to fans is much more than the accuracy or importance that number holds. The reason we care about the number is because we like the person those digits are attached to.

I like Tim Wakefield. He’s a big part of a team, my team, that won two World Series titles. But more importantly, he’s a big part of what made me fall in love with baseball way back when. I think he’s an extremely interesting guy who has had a remarkable career. It’s significant that no one has ever really blamed him for 2003, when Aaron Boone crushed a first-pitch knuckler to win the ALCS. I find it very tough to dislike Wakefield in any way, and plenty of other Red Sox fans feel the same way.

He always seems to be there, sitting in the bullpen ready to go out on the mound and make batters look silly. Or get lit up; depending on the wind, the weather and who is behind the plate trying to catch the damn thing. Someday that won’t be the case, and when that day comes these milestones will help me remember just what Wakefield meant.

Wakefield’s quest for 200 was long, seven trips to the mound between 199 and 200 filled with bad beats and the frustration of waiting.

“It did cross my mind,” Wakefield said when asked if he thought he might always be stuck on 199. Then he said something remarkably human with all those cameras and recording devices shoved in his face.

But I kept telling myself that a milestone doesn’t determine me as a person. (I’ve) been very fortunate to live out a dream I had as a kid and I’m just thankful that it happened tonight and I’m very grateful that it happened in front of our home crowd.

Quotable for sure, but if he’s being honest than he has a pretty excellent grasp on the magnitude of that win for almost everyone involved. There’s the Wild Card and his own statistics, the fans and even his own value as a human being in one soundbyte. Athletes live remarkable narrow lives, but for someone whose singular focus is putting small numbers on the big board, Tim Wakefield seems to have things sorted out.

I’m happy for Tim Wakefield, not because he really cares about 200 wins but because I’m allowed to care as well. That milestone represents something special, the concrete detail necessary to gauge greatness and the impact a realative stranger has had on my life.

Arnold has Mickey Kailine’s lifetime batting average memorized in “The Baseball” because he loves the way he plays the game, not because he drafted him in a nondescript big-city roto league. Arnold — there’s a smudge on the last name — also has odd trivia about the slugger memorized and just had to see his final game. He could have made 400 bucks off that last home run ball, or cherished it forever, but the entire point of that episode is that Arnold’s selflessness and humanity make him feel for Kailine as a person. He gave the ball back because it meant more to a retiring baseball player, and even just the memory of playing catch with him meant something more to a fourth grader with a football-shaped head.

Growing up everyone wanted Arnold’s cool room, but the secret to that show is that it taught you something about yourself each episode. I think that’s what good media is supposed to do, and these days just about everything is media.

Today I’m really happy someone I’ve never met reached an arbitrary statistic that means nothing. Because when you think about it, that’s what sports are all about.