Seven One Four

Numbers carry amazing power.

While words have a myriad of contexts (just ask Sam Armytage), numbers are irrefutable. Yes, their context can be manipulated – as any economist will tell you – but seven per-cent unemployment is seven per-cent unemployment and two per-cent GDP growth is two percent GDP growth.

Perhaps thanks to people like Daniel Okrent – and closer to home Ted Hopkins – sports and sports fans’ pre-occupation with numbers borders on OCD. There’s an apocryphal comedic riff I’ve heard in recent times that neatly encapsulates sports fans’ obsession with numbers. I’m tempted to credit it to U.S stand-up par-excellence Bill Burr, but I can’t be completely sure this is correct (and I’m happy to be pointed to whom this work belongs to – credit where credit is due). The joke goes thus:

News Anchor: We cross to the sports desk now, and Jim, the Braves take on the Mets at Metlife stadium today, what can we expect?

Jim: Thanks Bob, and yes, the Mets should win here, looking at the numbers, they’re 62% more likely to win against left-handed starters when the wind is coming from the east, the moon is in Aquarius on a Tuesday and Bartolo Colon eats fried chicken the night before a game. Interestingly though, Atlanta’s numbers show they’re 68% against teams wearing orange with three Cubans in their starting line up, an Ol’ Miss graduate playing third baseman and a Puerto Rican reliever in the opposing bull-pen. Should be a blast! I’m going Mets to beat the Braves 3-1

Anchor: Okay Jim. Thanks for that. Turning to finance now and with the Reserve Bank set to review interest rates tomorrow, we’re joined by Chad Thurston-Howell. Chad what’s the market expecting tomorrow’s figures to show?

Chad: Well, Bob, your guess is as good as mine…

*     *     *     *     *

714 stood as one of Major League Baseball’s ‘magic numbers’ for a generation of fans and players. In a career as famous for his feats off the mound as on, George Herman Ruth smacked 714 home runs in career that spanned 21 seasons and three teams. Upon his retirement in May 1935 few believed that The Babe’s record would ever be matched, let alone surpassed.

Many tried; Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Fred Robinson and Willie Mays, to name just a few. Everyone of them – and more – failed.

Everyone failed until the until a six-foot power-hitter from Mobile Alabama by the name of Henry Louis Aaron caressed home run number 715 past the outstretched glove of L.A Dodgers outfielder Bill Buckner in Atlanta on the 8th of April, 1974. A record that many thought unbreakable, a record that stood for almost 30 years had been broken. When Hank Aaron retired in 1976, the bar would be raised to 755 career home-runs.

Both men reside in Baseball’s pantheon in Cooperstown, New York. Unquestionable legends.

The debate rages among the numbers freaks; who was better? The Babe or Hank Aaron? The numbers say that Hank Aaron was 41 home runs better, but does it matter? Were Williams, Mantle, Mays, Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig or Ty Cobb chumps for not matching 714? Hardly.

Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth were undoubted masters their craft. Both men filled stadiums. Both are on Baseball’s All-Century Team – the equivalent of the AFL’s Team of the Century. Both were champions.

For over 70 years, Jock McHale’s games coached record has stood at 714. On Friday evening, Mick Malthouse coaches game number 715. Jock McHale’s record, like the Babe’s 714 is a number that few believed would ever be matched or surpassed.

Like Hank Aaron, Malthouse now goes on to set the next benchmark, to raise the bar.

There’s daylight between McHale and Malthouse on the all-time games coached list. Sheeds is the next closest on 678, with Allan Jeans and Tom Hafey next. Are Barassi (515), John Kennedy Sr (412), Norm Smith (452), David Parkin (518) and Leigh Matthews (461) mugs? Of course not.

But each of these men have coached as many (in the case of Kennedy) or more premierships than Mick.

Are they better than Mick? Who cares?

Malthouse has carved out 30 years in one of the most cut-throat, high pressure and merciless careers you could imagine undertaking. He’s adapted to – if not innovated – and mastered three different eras of Australian rules footy. That’s got to count for something.

McHale’s seven Collingwood premiership teams were undoubted powerhouses. Norm Smith coached six Melbourne sides to flags, both are immortalised in their own ways. The number of discussions I’ve heard or been involved in, over whether McHale or Smith was the better coach I could count on one finger.

Yes, Mick’s a grumpy prick at times, but picture yourself being asked the same knuckle-headed questions from three generations of journalists. There’s only so many times you can say “I wasn’t satisfied with how the team played today,” and if you’ve ever sat in on an AFL post-game presser, you’d be ready to take down Mark Stevens after 30 years of the same shit, different presser as well.

Mick’s decision to surpass McHale’s record in a game against Collingwood says more to me about his understanding of the feat he’s about to record, than it does about the ridiculous perception peddled around that this is some kind of Carlton Footy Club trolling of the arch-enemy. Imagine, even for a moment that Malthouse – who was given reign to choose Carlton’s opponent for the record-breaking achievement, don’t forget –  nominated the West Coast Eagles to break the record against. Picture the Floreat Pica being frozen out of the occasion all-together and tell me that an Eddie McGuire back-page splash citing disrespect isn’t part of that narrative.

No, Malthouse’s call for Collingwood to be involved smells like someone who understands history, smells of someone who gets the magnitude of this achievement. And while I’m not delusional enough to think that Mick would love nothing more than to get a win on Friday night, Collingwood will forever remain part of the game’s coaching longevity record narrative.

I don’t care whether The Babe is better than Hank Aaron. I don’t care if Jock McHale was a better coach than Mick or vice-versa. They’re all champions at what they did – or do when it comes to Malthouse.

It was good enough for Ted Whitten to meet Doug Hawkins and embrace as Doug took the field to break Mr Football’s Footscray games played record. Babe Ruth’s widow publicly congratulated Hank Aaron after home-run 715 went into the record books.

A little graciousness from sections of the Collingwood fan base (not the entire Magpie army, of course) and certainly from sections of the media might be in order because as Bart Cummings famously urged, “champions don’t deserve to be compared, just recognised.”

714. Numbers are funny like that…

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