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Do Sports Records Really Tell It Like It Was?

'The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it," Oscar Wilde once wrote. Even in the world of sports, there is support for the witty Dubliner's aphorism.

Sports revisionists have rarely run into controversy as long as they focused on lesser-known marks of bygone athletes. But the recent Nykesha Sales episode at the University of Connecticut raised a few questions. When and why should records be changed. And by whom?

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Sales is an All-American basketball player at Connecticut who is often described as unselfish and brilliant. She was one point short of a school scoring record when an injury ended her season with one regular season game left in her college career. Since she was so well liked, her teammates and opponents felt Sales should have the record.

Such gestures are not unprecedented. An injured Lou Gehrig once preserved his consecutive games streak when given a courtesy at-bat. He quickly left from his 1,427th game and returned to his hotel to recuperate.

The Sales incident, however, was met with an outcry. The integrity of women's basketball was questioned in newspaper and TV reports. It became a story that could not be ignored. Then, acting on a tip, ESPN's magazine reviewed television footage of an earlier game and discovered that Sales was wrongly credited with two points someone else scored. Hence, the magazine said, Sales was still one point short of a record.

"Whenever there is a conflict, we allow the two contesting teams to resolve the dispute," says Jim Wright, director of statistics at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In the Sales case, it was UConn and Seton Hall University, the host. Representatives of both schools said they were happy with the scoring, and Sales got to keep the record.

"We only get involved when a national record is involved," says Wright. "And only when there is substantial and irrefutable evidence."

An athlete's career is often weighed in terms of statistical milestones. The availability of technology such as slow-motion television replays and computer databases make it possible to track these more closely than before.

Last week, the UCLA-Alabama women's basketball game was analyzed, frame by frame, to determine how long the timekeeper took to restart the clock in the waning seconds of Alabama's 75-74 victory.

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"That's absurd," says Gary Johnson, an NCAA statistician of the excessive scrutiny. "Everybody is human."

Recordkeepers are quick to point out that referees and timekeepers must make many judgement calls. There are more than 900 colleges in the US and the ability of statisticians is bound to vary widely.

George Long, a Boston baseball fan, believes history should not tinker with revered records, as happened to one of the game's long-standing batting marks. Only in recent years was Ty Cobb's hit total reduced from 4,191 to 4,189 after a glitch was uncovered. The mistake was traced to the 1910 season when Cobb had two hits in a game but somehow score sheets were entered twice, on Sept. 24 and again on Sept. 25. Such incorrect entries will receive immediate media attention today, says Wright. At the turn of the century, Cap Anson was incorrectly credited with 20 hits to his record by a friendly Chicago scorekeeper. This was recently discovered.

Technology has refined the work of number crunchers. But back in 1924 when computing was a manual task, an error in adding up scores denied Olympic ski jumper Anders Haugen a medal. Fifty years later, the glitch was discovered and Haugen got a medal.

For sports revisionists more than statistical errors have proved contentious. Did Diego Maradona score his match-winning goal in the 1985 World Cup soccer tournament with his head or illegally with his hand? Did Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series really point to where he would hit a home run and then hit it there? There are two sides to this story: Although there were dozens of sportswriters at that game, the first mention of the incident came three days later when Bill Corum wrote about the now debated gesture in the New York Journal.

Wrote Corum: "Words fail me. When [Ruth] stood up there at the bat before 50,000 persons calling the balls and strikes with gestures for the benefit of the Cubs in the dugout and then, with two strikes on him, pointed out where he was going to hit the next one and hit it there, I gave up. The fellow is not human."

Years later, Chicago broadcaster Hal Totten, said Ruth told him: "No, it isn't a fact. Only a fool would do a thing like that. You know there was a lot of pretty rough ribbing going on on both benches during that Series. When I swung and missed that first one, those Cubs really gave me a blast. So I grinned at 'em and held out one finger and told 'em it'd only take one to hit it.

"Then there was that second strike and they let me have it again. So I held up that finger again and I said I still had that one left. Naw, kid, you know well I wasn't pointin' anywhere. If I'd have done that, Root would have stuck the ball right in my ear. And besides that, I never knew anybody who could tell you ahead of time where he was going to hit a baseball. When I get to be that kind of fool, they'll put me in the booby hatch."

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