Would the legacy of Ted Williams’ greatness as a baseball hitter be any more profound had he hit 663 home runs instead of 521? If instead of standing 15th on the all-time list with 1,839 runs batted in, he was first with 2,380? If he had another Triple Crown on his resume, or had reached 3,000 hits?
Well, not really in his case, although we know Williams would have liked that, and liked it loudly. He went into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in his initial year of eligibility, and that was despite a chilly relationship with the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Williams is appreciated just fine, despite losing nearly five full seasons in the prime of his career to service in World War II and Korea. The above stats, however, extrapolated by baseball historian and statistician Dean Hybl, are reasonable representations of what Williams might have accomplished without those interruptions.
Wartime service was undertaken with a higher purpose, of course, but many players missed out on career milestones that would have changed their standing in the game as a result.
Now, it is another war keeping players in all sports off their respective playing fields. The war is against the coronavirus and there is no telling how long it will last. A study by disease researchers at Harvard published this week postulated that social distancing would need to be either maintained or repeated periodically into 2022.
It is possible sports can resume with televised events only, no spectators, but who knows when or what that would entail, at least prior to the availability of a vaccine? Would teams need to be tested and then isolated from all other contact, including their own families? Is the potential reward of resumption worth the risk, and when will that balance point be reached?
No one has the answers. And, meanwhile, in what is perhaps the least important overall consequence of the pandemic, there are sports careers on hold that could be diminished by extended absences during this wartime fight against the disease.
Here are a few current examples:
In tennis, Serena Williams remains one slam championship short of tying Margaret Court’s record of 23 titles. Williams, 39 in September, has recurring knee problems and hasn’t been as dominant since giving birth to a daughter in 2017. Still, she made two slam finals in 2019, advanced to the third round of the Australian Open in January, and was playing well enough to perhaps catch and pass Court this season. Next year, after another extended absence, seems that much less likely.
Tiger Woods, the winner of last year’s Masters, his first major in 11 years, is still three major championships behind the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus. Woods turns 45 in December and only a small handful of majors have been won by players that age or beyond, including the final title captured by Nicklaus, the 1986 Masters when he was 46. The odds were already against Woods’ making a run at Nicklaus, but it would have been interesting. Now, the odds are overwhelming.
LeBron James turns 36 in December. He is 4,300 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time NBA career leadership. If he plays at a pace in which he plays 70 games a season and scores 25 points per game, he would reach 38,387 points sometime midway through the third season coming. But when will that arrive, and will he still be capable of it?
Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady are locked in an end-of-career battle for what may well be the all-time statistical domination of their position. Brees, who will be 42 next January, holds the record for both passing yards (77,416) and touchdown passes (547). Brady, who will be 43 in August, is second in both (74,571 and 541). If the NFL has to shut down for a season, will one suffer a significant falloff while the other keeps going? And which one?
Alex Ovechkin turns 35 in September and he hasn’t slowed down yet. When the NHL suspended play, Ovechkin was tied for the league lead with 48 goals. For his 14-season NHL career, he has scored 706 goals, making him one of just eight players to reach 700 goals, and the only active player among the top 20. Ovechkin appears certain to become just the third player to reach 800, behind Wayne Gretzky (894) and Gordie Howe (807), but there is also the outside chance, if he played four more seasons at his current level, he could even challenge The Great One. Will he get the chance?
And, finally, there is baseball, the greatest of the statistical games. A case could be made that Justin Verlander, who is 37 and has 225 career wins, could become the last-ever 300-game winner. Starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as they were in the past, and don’t last as long, and neither fact is going to change. (For instance, Verlander had 124 wins before he turned 30. Currently, among major-league starters under 30 years old, the career win leader is Garrit Cole with 94, and he turns 30 in September.) Verlander is a freak and says he wants to pitch until he’s 45. He might have to, however, in order to reach 300 wins.
If we get through this current crisis with as minimal a loss of life as possible because of careful restrictions, no one will feel sorry for the athletes listed above if their career goals were limited because of them. What took place nearly 70 years ago probably kept Warren Spahn from being only the third pitcher to win 400 games. It kept Joe DiMaggio from adding 80 home runs and 450 RBIs to his career totals, and Bob Feller, who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, from joining the 300-win club.