The week in numbers: w/e 8/8/10

26 – Days between the World Cup final and the start of the Football League season, which kicked off with the Championship opener between Norwich and Watford on Friday evening. (Watford won 3-2.)

17 – All but five of the Championship’s 22 clubs have prior experience of playing in the Premier League.

3Scott Rendell has scored in his first league appearance in the last three seasons, for Peterborough, Torquay & now Wycombe.

Usan Bolt (image courtesy of José Goulão)

2Usain Bolt lost a 100 metres race for only the second time in his professional career after losing to Tyson Gay at Friday’s Diamond League meeting in Stockholm. Bolt’s only previous defeat came in the same stadium (to Asafa Powell) two years ago.

72Pakistan‘s first innings total in the second Test, their lowest score ever against England. It came less than a week after they set their previous low of 80 in the first Test.

54 – Pakistan’s number three batsman, Azhar Ali, spent a total of 54 minutes at the crease before being dismissed for a duck. It was the fifth-longest (in terms of time) run-less innings in Test history.

Graeme Swann

8Graeme Swann‘s second innings return of 6/60 (as at last night’s close) represents his best bowling performance in Tests, and is the eighth time he has taken at least five wickets in an innings in just his 22nd Test match.

180,000 – Weekly salary reportedly demanded by Inter Milan striker Mario Balotelli in transfer negotiations with Manchester City. Balotelli is 19 and has played just 59 games for Inter.

600 – The New York YankeesAlex Rodriguez hit his 600th career home run on Wednesday in a 5-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, becoming the seventh player to do so in Major League Baseball history and, at 35 years and 8 days, the youngest to reach that landmark. It came on the three-year anniversary of his 500th home run.

15,133 – Total fines (in pounds) levied against the Dutch and Spanish Football Associations by FIFA for their players’ poor discipline in last month’s World Cup final. Spain received five yellow cards; Holland had eight players booked and defender John Heitinga was sent off.

10Fabio Capello‘s first post-World Cup England squad contained just 10 of the 23-man squad who played in South Africa.

18 Tiger Woods ended with a career-worst total of 18-over par at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio. He finished 30 shots behind winner Hunter Mahan.

And finally, two statistics to illustrate how you should always take pre-season results with a pinch of salt:

11 – Goals in Arsenal‘s final pre-season game at Legia Warsaw. The Gunners won 6-5, having been 3-0 down.

80% – Reigning Premier League champions Chelsea have lost four of their five preseason games, including yesterday’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in the Community Shield.

(Some statistics courtesy of @OptaJoe.)

A record best forgotten?

Hot on the heels – or should that be pedals? – of the doping scandals which engulfed last month’s Tour de France, which saw both the pre-race favourite, Alexandre Vinokourov, and the then yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen, leave in disgrace mid-race, comes another, largely unwelcome, high profile drugs-related story.

Last night, in a Major League Baseball game against the Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants’ slugger Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run. In so doing, he broke Hank Aaron’s all-time record of 755 which had stood for 33 years. It is the most revered statistic in baseball; perhaps the single most notable stat in all American sports. It would be like someone beating Dixie Dean’s 60 goals in an English top-flight season, or surpassing Pele’s career goalscoring record – if anything, it’s even bigger than that.

It had to happen eventually. Despite the constant torrents of boos from opposition fans all over the US and the clamour from some fans and media calling for him to retire before breaking the record, the only thing likely to ever stop Bonds from achieving his goal was serious injury to his 43-year old body. And that simply didn’t happen.

He has beaten the record with agonising slowness, a combination of being regularly rested by his team and his own poor form contributing to progress which has been more of a crawl than a sprint finish. It is almost as if he has been taunting all the naysayers by dragging it out over the longest possible time.

Why is Big Bad Barry so despised?

Well, there is the clear association between his trainer, Greg Anderson, and the Balco scandal in 2003, which revealed the widespread use of illegal performance-enhancing substances such as THG across athletes in all American sports. Bonds himself has always testified that he has never knowingly – what a loaded word that is! – taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but the fact remains that Anderson himself was jailed for his part in the Balco operation. Read into that what you will.

And, over the course of his professional career, there is the visible evidence that Bonds has grown in several key dimensions – chest size, neck size and so on – which, in fairness, can be reasonably attributed to hours invested in the weights room and the natural process of ageing. But perhaps more telling are claims that his shoes are three sizes larger than in the early days of his career, not something which is commonly seen through natural growth or gym work. Draw your own conclusions.

I must say, I’ve seen Bonds play, both live and on TV. He has always been brutishly strong which, coupled with naturally exceptional hand-eye co-ordination and fast hands mean that he would always have been an outstanding talent. But for his home run productivity to accelerate sharply beyond the age of 35, when the effects of ageing clearly start to outweigh any benefits of experience, is – to say the least – highly questionable.

Like any accused person, Barry Bonds is innocent until proven guilty. But although nothing may ever be proven against him, his reputation among the majority of fans is irreparably tarnished, and his entry into baseball’s record books will always be accompanied by an unwritten asterisk.

Having said all this, despite the growing hysteria this story has created in the US over the past few months, it is also important to keep things in perspective. This is not a tragedy in the way that Heysel or the Munich air crash were.

And yet, for true fans who want to believe in the pure, unaided talent of our sporting heroes, it IS a tragedy.

One final footnote. In spite of Bonds’ efforts, San Francisco lost the game 8-6. That is a matter of recorded fact. Symbolically, many fans will feel that baseball as a whole was the loser last night, and will wish that the most memorable record in baseball is now one best forgotten.

Across the pond

I’ve just returned from a week’s holiday in the US, so here are ten observations on how sport is different (and in some cases not so different) across the pond.

1. Sport benefits/suffers from (delete as you see fit) saturation TV coverage every bit as much as it does in the UK. While we were there, it was wall-to-wall baseball (regular season) and basketball (playoffs). And then there’s college baseball, the women’s college softball finals series, lacrosse, Arena football (think of it as an indoor NFL which bears a passing resemblance to 5-a-side football) … I could go on …

2. Most Americans – particularly those in areas with big football (by which I mean NFL), baseball, basketball or hockey teams (i.e. most cities) – don’t really seem even remotely bothered about soccer. Incidentally, David Beckham has a lot of work to do – as of last week, the LA Galaxy were one off the bottom of their division. (Good job they don’t have relegation in US sports!)

3. Similarly, despite whatever the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone might claim, F1 also has a pretty low profile. OK, it was the Indy 500 last week, which skews things, but to put it into context, the Monaco GP got much less airtime than NASCAR – I waited for ages for ESPN to tell me something, and then blinked and almost missed the result flashing past on their on-screen ticker.

4. Unless you’re a fan of the San Francisco Giants, everyone REALLY dislikes Barry Bonds. He is a tantalising nine home runs short of the most sacred of records, Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs, and is consistently booed every time he sets foot on the field. It seems like everyone – fans and media alike – use the word “tarnished” in every sentence, and are either clamouring for him to voluntarily retire before he reaches the record (like that will happen) or for the powers-that-be to strip him of the record (only marginally less unlikely). Now I’m a great believer in innocent-until-proven-guilty, but the circumstantial evidence against Bonds is pretty compelling. At an age when his performances should long since have deteriorated, his scoring rate has as good as doubled. And while it’s understandable that a player’s chest, neck and other measurements might grow with age as a result of legal means, what conclusion are you supposed to draw about a player whose shoes have increased by three sizes since he first turned pro? The man is tainted, and so will the record be. Very sad, for baseball and for all sports in general.

5. Does the baseball season really have to go on for 160-odd games? I’ve grown to like baseball over the years, but if I were to watch every minute of every one of my favourite team’s games over the course of a season (and every game is televised on either a mainstream or MLB subscription channel), I would be watching over 500 hours a year even before the playoffs have started – that’s 24/7 for three WEEKS!

6. West Ham, Craig Bellamy and football teams and players in general really do get off lightly for their transgressions. Two NFL players have recently been banned for repeated bad/criminal behaviour, with the negative impact it has on the image of a league which wants to promote its players as role models cited as a key factor. The length of their bans? Half a season. And a full season. Ouch.

7. NFL players – particularly offensive linemen – have always been large, but surely it’s getting a bit silly these days when you start referring to a player who tips the scales in the region of 300 pounds (21-and-a-half stones) as being “under-sized”. You would be amazed at just how athletic many of these guys are, but even so, that really can’t be healthy.

8. You think our footballers are too often guilty of unsportsmanlike behaviour? How about Alex Rodriguez, star of the New York Yankees? While running the bases, he shouted in the ear of an opposing fielder to put him off, resulting in a dropped catch. Maybe he saw the video of Bolton’s Stelios Giannakopoulos stamping on a balloon as Kevin Doyle was taking a penalty a few weeks ago. Oh, hang on, it was a soccer match – of course he won’t have seen it!

9. Basketball can be a great sport played by incredibly talented (and unfeasibly tall) athletes, but it’s hard to get excited when scores are pinging in left, right and centre and tension never builds until deep into the fourth quarter when the scores are tied at 90-90 … and then the final minutes are strung out over an interminable period of time-outs, fouls and other stoppages. Why not just play it over one quarter’s length and just cut straight to the exciting bit?

10. I’ve always known about the huge popularity of college sports in the US (you get 100,000-plus people regularly turning up to University of Michigan football games, for instance), but it still amazes me. Whether it’s college football, baseball, basketball or even women’s softball (which I can say from personal experience is strangely compelling), it receives prominent TV and press coverage not far short of what the pros get. Can you imagine the Times covering, say, Bournemouth University’s football games?!?

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