Pretty numbers

Baseball is a game of numbers. Sure, the game is beautiful in the movement of the players on the field, the ebb and flow of the innings, and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But so much of the game is tied to its stats, its records, its numbers.

Ask any baseball fan what 714, 755 and 762 mean. What about 61, 70 and 73? How about 4,191 and 4,256 (even if the former has been adjusted to 4,189 as more information has come to light)? Is there any doubt that 2,130 and 2,632 are inexorably linked? The list goes on and on—511, 56, 1.12, etc.

But this isn’t going to be a review of the famous records in baseball history. And luckily for you, it’s not going to be what I first considered—which numbers are the most inherently pretty based on their shapes, the lines and curves that form them. That seemed to be a bit too esoteric, so I decided to go in a different direction.

I’m sticking with my initial thought to consider only the single-digit numbers, zero through nine, but I’m going to tie them in with baseball in some manner. After all, this is a baseball site. Here, then, is a completely subjective top 10 ranking of single-digit … um … digits.

10. 5

The “5″ position on the field is third base, and it seems no position has been disrespected more than third base. It’s the least represented position in the Hall of Fame. It’s a place catchers sometimes are sent once they no longer can stick behind the dish. And it’s where strong-armed but slow-footed defenders are shifted when their days at shortstop are done.

It seems “5″ is viewed as a placeholder, a second option when the first option isn’t available. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a solid fall-back option, but when there are nine other strong choices to consider when evaluating how each number ranks in the annals of baseball, “5″ is last.

9. 8

What’s the most straight-foward baseball tie-in for the number “8?” As with “5,” it’s probably the scorebook position, which in this case is center field. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio are some of the best ever to play the position.

That’s a strong collection of talent, and center field is generally more valuable than third base. Those cream-of-the-crop players and the overall weightings of the two positions bump “8″ slightly ahead.

8. 6

Again, the best tie-in between “6″ and baseball is its representation of the shortstop position, the toughest fielding spot in the game. Rarely a spot for offense—though baseball’s recent Holy Trinity (Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Alex Rodriguez) changed that perception somewhat—the glovework exhibited by elite shortstops is one of the absolute beauties of the game.

For many (most?) St. Louis fans, the digit “6″ means Stan Musial. The greatness of the premier Cardinal of all time and the class with which he carried himself throughout his career and beyond are enough to elevate the number “6″ above the bottom two on the list.

7. 4

Four balls lead to a free pass, and four straight walks would push a runner around all four bases. A bases-loaded home run, which scores four runs, is referred to as a “grand” slam, not an “okay” slam.

He wasn’t grandiose; instead, the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, wore the number with quiet distinction.

The quantity of baseball-related aspects of the number “4″ is small, but the quality is quite nice.

6. 2

A well-turned double play is one of the most fluid acts of skill in sports. And when it comes to the elegance of two athletes working in concert, it’s far more appealing that synchronized swimming.

Modern fans probably most associate the number with this guy. Not a bad candidate if you’re looking for a good association. And much like how his retiring teammate won’t ever see his uniform number worn again, no other Yankee is ever going to don the deuce once Jeter hangs up his spikes.

5. 7

Most people consider “7″ to be a lucky number (though I’m partial to 13). The “7″ position is left field, which is where a gaggle of excellent hitters have played—and some even provided strong defense.

But what positions this fortuitous digit mid-pack in the rankings is the grand tradition of the seventh-inning stretch. Football fans don’t get up and sing a song when the third quarter ends, and hockey doesn’t have a little something special between the second and third periods. This wonderful rite celebrated in every game is a unique experience going back many decades.

The song most often associated with the seventh-inning stretch is, of course, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a little ditty from 1908 (updated in 1927) written by two gents who had never even been to a game before penning their enduring tune. If every team would get back to using this song, the game would be even better.

4. 3

Three strikes and you’re out. Three outs and the inning is over. The most renowned player in the sport’s history.

That terrific trifecta is good enough to earn the number “3″ a spot high on this list.

3. 9

Basketball has five players on a side, and the games are 48 or 40 minutes long, depending on whether we’re talking NBA or NCAA. Football has 11 men per side, and they play 60 minutes. Soccer also has 11, and they go 90 minutes. Hockey? Who knows how many guys are on the ice at once?

Baseball, in a demonstration of elegant symmetry, has nine players per side, and the game lasts nine innings. How synchronistic is that?

Also, do you know what the score is in a forfeit? 9-0. It’s almost like baseball is saying, “Well, if you’re going to be a big ol’ dummy and make us not play, we’re going to let every one of our players score, and then we’re done.” The lesson? Don’t be a dummy and cause a game not to be played, because we all love baseball.

2. 1

Everybody wants to be No. 1, right? Sure they do. It’s the epitome of excellence, the statement to the world that no one is better.

The No. 1 starting pitcher is an ace. The leadoff hitter is the guy the manager depends on to get things going, to do anything to get on base, move around, and score runs, the currency of baseball. Players wear uniform No. 1 as a way to say, “Look at me!” One of them even enjoyed showing the world what the number looks like upside down.

The thing that keeps this lofty, desirable goal from the top spot, however, is that it isn’t special solely to baseball. Players in other sports wag their index fingers to indicate their superiority. Basketball’s point guards now are sometimes referred to as “1s.” One is a great number, but its greatness is diluted—just a little—by the desire of other sports to strive for it, as well.

1. 0

Sure, No. 1 is an excellent goal and fantastic achievement, but the only digit that divides evenly into every other is the runner-up in these rankings.

Some people (erroneously) say baseball is 90 percent pitching. But even if that’s not true, there’s something special about the number zero in baseball that other sports don’t have. Yes, football and hockey have occasional shutouts, and a nil-nil soccer match is viewed by many people as a thing of beauty—though most of those people live outside the U.S.

But baseball embraces nothingness unlike any other game. Putting up zeroes or donuts on the scoreboard is highly desirable for the defensive team. Shutouts are common yet special enough that they’re tracked as an official stat. No-hitters, when the opposition does nothing with the bat, are celebrated. And games in which one team’s batters never reach base at all so represent the epitome of pitching achievement, they’re referred to as “perfect.”

Yes, home runs, hitting streaks, and slugfests appeal to many fans, but quite a few people find unmatchable magnificence in the utter absence of any offense whatsoever. How many other sports admire a blanking like baseball does? None. It’s a singular aspect of the sport that sets it apart from all others.

References & Resources
This article was inspired by (or can be blamed on) the last words in this Rob Neyer piece.

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Comments

  1. gdc said...

    New article idea?  I thought it was going to be all players with that number, playing that position (e.g. Brett & Brooksie at the hot corner).  C’mon, you can do it, and no Bambino at first, even if he did play there at the end.
    Turn it in before the WS and we won’t take off points for late homework.
    OTOH, maybe save it for December when there’s no baseball news.

  2. Greg Simons said...

    Glenn – I think I’d heard of this Wisconsin tradition at some point in the past, and it’s very cool.  Plus, I really like the song.  (Now I want to go to a Badgers game.)  However, I’ll call it a case of the exception proving the rule.

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