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Madden: Bravo! Mazeroski, Swann defy stats

Saturday, August 04, 2001

This weekend, Lynn Swann and Bill Mazeroski officially attain immortality. Swann enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Mazeroski enters the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Swann and Mazeroski thus become rare exceptions to the twisted rules by which we deem athletes great.

Swann and Mazeroski knew how to play their respective games, compete, contribute and win. They did so with class and skill. But neither had "the numbers," as statistics are so ominously referred to, which is why it took each of them far too long to receive Hall of Fame recognition.

"The numbers" are way too important in the fantasy league-saturated, stat geek-dominated world of sports.

You win, or you lose. You contribute, or you don't. You perform in the clutch, or you choke. That's how athletes primarily should be judged. It's how they used to be judged.

But no more.

You hit 500 home runs, you make the Baseball Hall of Fame. That whirring sound you'll hear when Jose Canseco makes the Hall someday will be Babe Ruth spinning in his grave like a drill bit.

Canseco was effective for a couple of years when, besides hitting homers, he could run a little. But for the past decade, he has personified muscle-bound mediocrity as an injury-prone DH who lets fly balls bounce off his head on the rare occasions when his manager is dumb enough to let him play the outfield.

No matter. If Canseco hits 500 homers -- he had 454 before yesterday -- he will be a Baseball Hall of Famer.

If you score 500 goals, you make the Hockey Hall of Fame. Glorified journeyman winger Pat Verbeek has 515 goals, partially because he has decent finishing ability but mostly because he's managed to hang around the incredibly diluted NHL for 19 seasons.

When you think of great hockey players, you don't think of Verbeek. When you think of hockey players in general, you don't think of Verbeek. In fact, I'm having trouble conjuring up circumstances that would make anyone think of Verbeek.

No matter. Verbeek has more than 500 goals. He will be a Hockey Hall of Famer.

The local football faithful talk about Jerome Bettis as a potential Pro Football Hall of Famer. I don't see it. Bettis has seven 1,000-yard seasons in eight tries, but he has averaged only 4.0 yards per carry -- 14 NFL backs topped that mark and 1,000 yards last season -- and he's never taken his team to the proverbial Promised Land. He has only been a part of two playoff teams.

Bettis is good. Very good, even. But he's not a Hall of Famer. Yet supporters will cite his 1,000-yard seasons -- 1,000 yards isn't that tough to get in a 16-game season, by the way -- and Bettis probably will have a good shot at the Hall.

They say "the numbers" don't lie. But they don't always tell the whole truth. Thank heaven Swann and Mazeroski finally are getting the recognition they deserve, if only to stick it to the stat freaks.

I've got to admit, I wasn't always a big supporter of Mazeroski's quest for the Hall of Fame despite his status as my first sports hero when I was a kid. I considered "the numbers" more than I considered the player. I didn't think a lifetime .260 hitter should be in the Hall of Fame.

But Mazeroski was the all-time best-fielding second baseman, and being the all-time best at something should weigh heavily in determining greatness.

He posted "the numbers," too, albeit "numbers" most don't care about because they involve things like double plays, assists and Gold Gloves. He set the standard for how to pivot on a double play. And he had his one defining moment in the clutch, his home run to win the 1960 World Series for the Pirates.

Swann, meanwhile, should have been enshrined a long time ago despite making only 336 catches in his nine-season career.

He was on a team that specialized in smashmouth football, i.e., running the ball, yet he managed to make a plethora of big plays that helped win championships. Put Swann in his prime on the St. Louis Rams, and his stats top Torry Holt's.

Like Mazeroski, Swann redefined his position with his grace and athleticism. And like Mazeroski, Swann had his day in the sun: Super Bowl X, when he won MVP honors while dazzling beyond description.

When you judge greatness in an athlete, two things should count as much as "the numbers." Was he among the very best at his position during his era? Would every manager/coach of his era want him?

Mazeroski and Swann were among the very best during their respective eras. As for whether every manager/coach of their eras would want them, well, the ones who wanted to win certainly would.

Look past "the numbers." Consider the athlete. Consider his intangibles. Consider what he contributed to the accomplishments of his teams. And if all you understand is "the numbers," then you don't really know enough about sports to make credible evaluations anyway.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250.)

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