David Leggat: The tainted stat that divides a nation

By David Leggat

Americans love their sports statistics. As everyone knows, stats can be manipulated to find a favourable result. But they rarely tell a complete story.

Okay, Don Bradman's test average of 99.94 is cricket's four most famous numbers. That number will never be surpassed, at least not by anyone whose test career has any length to it, and Bradman did play 52 tests.

Consider that the second best batting average of those to have played a minimum 20 tests is South African Graeme Pollock at 60.97 (Australian Mike Hussey stands at 79.85, but from only 16 tests.)

Americans are mad for their numbers. American football, ice hockey, basketball are saturated in numbers. Even their golf tour is all about percentages for accuracy off the tee, driving distance, scrambles, making greens in regulation. In golf only one thing matters - how few shots you take to get the pill in the damn hole, but there you are.

Perhaps no sport is so stats-ified as baseball, and American sports' most famous number is 755.

That's how many home runs Henry Aaron hit during a remarkable 23-year Major League career.

In a survey a few years ago, leading American sports men and women were polled on what they thought was the hardest thing to do in sports. Hitting a small round ball with a thin round stick was tops by a mile. This is a sport where if you hit safely three times out of every 10 attempts you're in the big time.

'Hammerin' Hank' overtook the legendary Babe Ruth's 714 home runs in 1974, surviving a barrage of racist junk mail along the way.

How good was Aaron? The story goes that during his prime in the 1960s, Los Angeles Dodgers players were sitting round discussing the game's best batters just before the start of a season and how to combat them.

Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, plans were made for all the greats of the day.

"What about Aaron?" one of them piped up. After a long silence, another voice replied: "Make sure no one's on [base] when he hits it out".

Sometime in the next few days - perhaps today at San Diego - he might be joined by another black man with dynamite in his bat.

But whereas Aaron was a reserved, dignified man, Barry Bonds is American sport's most divisive figure.

No one disputes his ability to propel a ball vast distances. His hand-eye co-ordination, the speed of his hands mark him as a supreme hitter. It's just that most see him as a person whose success has at least partly come about through steroid use.

A look at his physique in his early Major League years compared with now tells a tale. It's like the Incredible Hulk, before and after.

His name is synonymous with sport's dark side. His trainer, Greg Anderson, is in prison for refusing to talk to a federal grand jury investigating Bonds.

As one San Francisco Giants fan said this week: "He may be a cheat, but he's our cheat".

Plus he's a prat who's easy to dislike. He seems to delight in rubbing people the wrong way.

A noisy Los Angeles fan this week gave Bonds both barrels during batting practice.

"We don't hate you because you cheated. We hate you because you're a jerk," he roared.

That's nothing new to Bonds. He's jeered wherever he goes, apart from his home crowd where the waters over the fence behind centre field are routinely crowded with fans in boats armed with poles to fish Bonds' big bangers out of the drink.

But Bonds has been in a jam since last Saturday when he hit No 754. He's had 23 bats since then but it's not happening. He's showing signs of desperation.

As the New York Times put it yesterday: "He is more feeble than lethal these days."

Bonds is limping to the line, rather than bursting through it. When the deed is done, with luck he'll move on.

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