I am writing a book or, more accurately, I am rewriting several books—record books—and consolidating them into one. You've heard of the Guinness Book of World Records? This will be the Ruthless Book of Sports Records because of the unsentimental, nonnegotiable standards I will use in compiling it. If there's even a hint of debate about a so-called record, just the slightest misgiving about how it was achieved, it will not make the cut. If in doubt, it's out. It's going to be harder to squeeze into my book than into a Walmart on Black Friday.
This is an article from the Dec. 3, 2012 issue
We've been too accepting of records as a culture. How can it be, for instance, that nearly every weekend some movie breaks a box office record? (Isn't that just another way of saying ticket prices keep going up?) But sports records especially have become cluttered with asterisks, vacated championships and ethical conundrums. The latest is the 138 points scored on Nov. 20 by guard Jack Taylor of Division III Grinnell, which set the NCAA single-game scoring record in a performance that couldn't have been any more distorted if it been played in front of a fun-house mirror. As noteworthy as the point total may be, the Ruthless Book does not recognize a record set when your teammates are passing up their own shots and feeding you the ball as if they're under hypnosis.
Trumped-up record chases and artificially pumped-up athletes have complicated the concept of records so much that every mark now needs at least a paragraph's worth of context. The alltime home run king used to simply be Babe Ruth, then Hank Aaron. Now it's Barry Bonds, with an explanation. Today's record books require round-the-clock editors to rewrite history, deleting Lance Armstrong's alltime-best seven Tour de France titles and erasing Joe Paterno's record for most wins by an FBS football coach. That sort of thing won't be necessary with the Ruthless Book, which will have only a few simple rules. A record will not be included if:
• A player or team has to go far outside the bounds of normal competition to set it. With all due respect to Taylor for his stamina—he hoisted up 108 shots in 36 minutes—records should arise naturally as a by-product of the effort to win, not as the priority. Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval's record-tying three home runs in a World Series game? Definitely in. Grinnell's turning its 179--104 victory over Faith Baptist Bible into a glorified game of Pop-A-Shot? To the reject pile, with other semi-orchestrated records such as Nykesha Sales's since-broken UConn scoring mark, set in 1998. After a career-ending knee injury, she hobbled onto the court to start a game against Villanova and scored an uncontested layup for the record-setting points. Or the Packers' Brett Favre's lying down to gift-wrap the single-season sack record for his buddy Michael Strahan of the Giants in 2001. Touching as those were, scripted performances belong in the theater, not the record book.
• The record involves some contrived set of categories. You're not getting into the Ruthless Book with Most Doubles against Lefthanded Pitchers in April Day Games. A couple of weeks ago Celtics coach Doc Rivers kept point guard Rajon Rondo on the court late in a game that Boston had about as much chance of winning as it did of reincarnating Red Auerbach. Rondo was pursuing Magic Johnson's record of 46 straight games with at least 10 assists, a mark that maybe six people in El Segundo were aware even existed, and he used those final meaningless minutes to dish out the four assists he needed to extend his streak to 34. It's not just that a smart coach like Rivers let the pursuit of an obscure record affect his decision, it's the arbitrary nature of the record. Is it worth doing the same for consecutive games with 11 assists or more? 12? 15?
• It reflects more about the era than the player. Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 passing yards—set in 1984—last year with 5,476, which is a little less impressive when you realize that Tom Brady (5,235) also surpassed Marino last season and Matthew Stafford (5,038) was within a swing pass of doing it too. In fact, thanks to an increased emphasis on passing, seven of the top 10 single-season totals have been achieved in the last five years. Making comparisons across eras, always a tricky proposition, is particularly misleading in NFL passing categories, so let's leave this one out in favor of a fairer stat, like yards per attempt. The Ruthless Book doesn't compare apples to oranges.
• A backstory is required. There will be no asterisks, unofficial or otherwise. If there is any uncertainty over who "deserves" a record, the category itself will be stricken from the book. Congratulations, Bonds, Armstrong and Mark McGwire. You've ruined it for the whole class.
It's not surprising that records have become so hard to sort out. With the growing ability to measure performances comes the capacity to pinpoint the most, the youngest, the oldest, the first, in ever-narrower categories. But records should be more than just fodder for drive time on sports-talk radio. If we're more selective about what we recognize as authentic, maybe we could make it through a season, any season, without wrestling over whether some new accomplishment should qualify. And if we do make it that long, then it would surely be some sort of record.