One of the completely under-sold perks of writing for Baseball Prospectus—aside from the deeply intelligent community, colleagues, and conversation, of course—is that you sometimes get baseball cards with your paychecks. When I was told I might get “cardboard bonuses,” I assumed the person I was talking with was making a cutesy allusion to the cardboard that would come in the envelope behind my check. I may need to reassess how sub-whimsical my previous writing jobs have been.
In any case, I was pleasantly surprised to see a 1991 Leaf Wade Boggs card in my mail the other day, and I almost immediately determined to write something at least tangentially related to the Red Sock they, apparently, called Chicken Man. My first thought was to analyze his historic cross-country flight upon which he drank either 64 or 107 beers, maybe going beer by beer and rhapsodizing briefly on each. But it seemed maybe a little poetically cocky for my fifth column. Unfortunately, the idea of Boggs’ beer consumption, which had to have been a record of some sort, couldn’t be shaken. No amount of half-drafted articles on how weird it was that he was at one point a Devil Ray could get me off the trail.
So I decided to zig instead of zag and write a bit about the reasons that records, particularly in baseball, are so persistent in the minds of the sport’s fans and writers. This persistence is the evergreen cliché of baseball, of course—any film or TV show that includes a character who “loves baseball” will be sure to show that character casually tossing out Ty Cobb’s lifetime average, name dropping Ted Williams as the most recent .400 hitter, or rhapsodizing about Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds’ home run records. And saber-savvy fans online are the same way at times, or perhaps you’ve forgotten about the several dozen “Mike Trout Facts” twitters we all follow? On some level, records—the absolute statistical outlier—fascinate us.
Maybe the reason is simple enough and implied by “statistical outlier.” Baseball is a game that, even in a season not-yet-finished, is awash in numbers, some predictive, some not so predictive, and all of which tell a narrative. A 162-game season is pretty difficult to make sense of without a zoomed-out view, which the numbers help to give us for better or worse. And as a subset of “baseball numbers,” the record numbers represent high and low boundary points, ways to understand the scale of the achievements we see in-season. If Rickey Henderson’s 130 stolen bases are the modern era’s single-season record, then we have a high water mark to judge the speedsters of today.
But while this seems very straightforward, the issue gets clouded when we start assigning transcendent meaning to records. Either we take the comparative qualities of the record too seriously, or we make hagiographies of the players who achieved these feats. If we do the former, we usually find ourselves embroiled in yet another debate over steroids, and whether different eras can be compared due to different drug use and non-use. And then we’ll find ourselves in some debate over whether things were better in the past, as if the Cubs-Brewers game is the perfect jumping off point to talk about what’s wrong with the kids these days. Things aren’t much less tedious if we deify the record-holders, either. Fun facts, as BPro’s resident podcast Effectively Wild has proven, are a blast, but they also keep us from enjoying the product on the field. It’s cool that Bonds had an OBP over 600 in 2004; it isn’t meaningful.
That distinction, between important and meaningful, is dicey, though. Why distinguish between these two fairly close descriptors at all? Why not just assume an important thing is a meaningful thing? Well, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, considered by many the father of contemporary semiotics, has a pretty good, if roundabout explanation as to why.
Saussure is best known in literary critical circles for implementing the now-ubiquitous linguistic trilogy of signifier, signified, and sign. The simple account of his theory is that there is no transcendent a priori reason that, say, a coffee cup is called “coffee cup.” Language operates schematically to make this connection: you think of or speak or write the words “coffee cup,” and those words are “signifiers” pulling up in your mind any number of different images of coffee cups, the “signifieds.” When I hold a coffee cup and say (or write) “this is a coffee cup,” I am combining signifier (words) and signified (thing) into the corporate “sign.” In theory, this is a long series of moves, but in reality, our minds make the connections quickly enough that Saussure’s observations really only signify (haha) in the academic spectrum. Importantly, though, he adds this important sociological point to his more practical observations in the Introductory Chapter of his Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics:
“Not only are these two domains [signifier and signified] between which the linguistic [sign] is situated amorphous, but the choice of connection between the two, the marriage (of the two) which will create value is perfectly arbitrary. Otherwise the values would be to some extent absolute. If it were not arbitrary, this idea of value would have to be restricted, there would be an absolute element. But since this contract is entirely arbitrary, the values will be entirely relative.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but for our purposes, let’s focus on “value” and “arbitrary.” The value of language is, unsurprisingly, communication, and therefore only the successful interaction between signifier and signified creates value. But that value isn’t “absolute,” which is to say that it isn’t pre-determined or transcendent. Instead, it’s totally arbitrary: there’s nothing about the words “coffee cup” that are coffee-cup-esque. We might just as easily call it a “cat” or a “destructive megaton blast” or a “5-4-3 double play”—so long as it accomplishes the marriage between signifier and signified, and so long as we socially agree upon that marriage, then any signifier can be associated with any signified.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with baseball records? Well, signs aren’t the only things that are determined through the marriage of two arbitrary parts, my friend. Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs may seem like an unbreakable signifier of contemporary excellence, but 73 could just as easily be 72 or 71 and mean the exact same thing. We’d get as much out of the “last .400 hitter” if George Brett in 1980 or Tony Gwynn in 1994 had pulled it off as we do hearkening back to Ted Williams. And when Bryce Harper or Giancarlo Stanton or Kyle Schwarber or whoever blasts through the career home run record, the world will continue much the same as it always has. At the risk of stating the obvious: records are simply arbitrary endpoints.
So while we might fetishize them for fun, it’s important to remember that records exist as imperfect measuring sticks. Even the fun ones! Debating whether Boggs drank 64, 107, or some different obscene number of beers on a plane kind of misses the point, fun as it may be. Regardless of the number, the man could drink beer. And regardless of the decimal points, Tony Gwynn, George Brett, and Ted Williams could definitely hit. Baseball is predicated upon and relies deeply upon limits foul lines, park dimensions, strike zones, batters boxes—but those limits define the content, not the spirit of the game. The spirit of the game is, and here’s a cliché for you, defined by the game itself.
Records, in other words, are arbitrary signifiers in and of themselves (eg, who cares if a guy wins the batting title with a .366 average instead of .365), but are not arbitrary as concepts. The fact that somewhere there is a home run record, or a stolen base record, or a batting average record reveals something about baseball itself, that it not only relies on its contemporary limits, but insists upon historical reference as well. We aren’t interested in records because they’re meaningful in and of themselves; we are interested in records because they are the metonyms for baseball history that allow us to grasp the bigger picture of the sport that fandom seems to demand. In that way, regardless of the numbers and names that come with them, records themselves deserve and demand our preoccupation and consideration.