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Steve Christilaw: Sports chock-full of magic numbers

There are more than a few numbers that will forever be identified with something related to sports. They are the true magic numbers, digits that transport memory to another time and another place.

Baseball is loaded with them.

The number 42 is so indelibly tied to Jackie Robinson that Major League Baseball officially retired the number in 1997. Once Yankees closer Mariano Rivera retired, the number will not be worn again, officially, in the game.

Joe DiMaggio will always be tied to the number 56 after his 1941 hitting streak and Babe Ruth made 60 so synonymous with home run excellence and the average fan isn’t sure if Barry Bonds hit 72 or 73 dingers.

Basketball has the triple double – hitting double digits in three different categories in one game, usually points, rebounds and assists. Occasionally you’ll see assists replaced by blocked shots, but it’s still an impressive landmark accomplishment for any player not named Russell Westbrook.

Track and field has a fair share of those magic numbers, too.

For the longest time, the most magical of them was four. As in running a mile in under four minutes.

There was a time when so-called experts proclaimed that a human being could not run a mile in under four minutes – it was an impossibility.

And then Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister, then just a medical student working at St. Mary’s Hospital, showed up with a few friends for a track meet at Oxford.

It wasn’t what you would think of as ideal conditions for a meet – rainy and blustery, and the 1,200 people who showed up to watch weren’t there to see history. With teammates Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher setting a fast pace early, Bannister, known for having an explosive kick, finished the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds to prove the experts wrong.

It’s still a number that makes you sit up and take notice, even though the world record now stands at 3:43.13 and is held by Hicham El Guerrouj. The women’s record, held by Svetlana Materkova, is 4:12.56.

The mile remains the only non-metric distance recognized by track and field’s international governing body, the IAAF for record purposes, and it’s not a regular part of the average track meet.

The one number that has always fascinated me is seven.

How in the world can a human being jump over a bar set higher than their head? I had trouble jumping over anything higher than my waist.

Thanks to the marvels of the internet, you can go back and watch the evolution of the high jump, and I am fascinated by how far it’s come.

For starters, having a pad to land on is a new-fangled idea that the early jumpers never benefited from. Of course, in the early days jumpers scissored their way over the bar, landing on their feet on the others side of the bar.

Even when jumpers began using the Western Roll and the Straddle jump, going over the bar face down, they landed in a pit piled with sawdust to break their fall – hardly a recipe for a soft landing.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that Wilt Chamberlain, as a 6-11 high school track athlete at Overlook High School in Phildadelphia, high jumped 6-6.

It did surprise me that singer Johnny Mathis, a prep track standout in San Francisco, regularly cleared 6-5, despite standing in at just 5-7. Mathis’ nearest high school competition? A tall, skinny kid named Bill Russell.

I started following track as a student at West Valley High. One of my classmates, Ed Mann, was the state Class AA champion our senior year, clearing 6-6 3/4 at Martin Stadium in Pullman.

But Mann wasn’t done that year. Before his prep career was over that summer, he cleared a school-record 7 feet.

From that point on, that number has held a fascination.

Mann wasn’t the first area high jumper to reach the magic number. Bob Keppel, a 1962 Central Valley graduate, cleared 7 feet at an all-comers meet at Shadle Park in 1969 and reached a personal record 7-4 1/2 before he hung up his cleats and became a detective working to catch Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer in King County.

A track athlete at Washington State, Keppel regularly faced off against Oregon jumper Dick Fosbury. Keppel never lost to his Duck rival head-to-head, but Fosbury went on to revolutionize the sport with his “Fosbury Flop,” the current style of jumping where the athlete goes over the bar backward.

Brent Harken is CV’s other 7-foot high jumper. The 1980 grad still holds the state meet record at 7-1 and owns a PR of 7-8 1/2.

Clearing the bar at 7 feet is less rare these days, but it’s still a number that gets your attention.

But you have to wonder if there is a limit to how high a human being can jump.

The world record is actually more than a foot higher. Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor cleared 8-0 1/4 in 1993 – the only male to clear 8 feet.

There are more 8-foot high jumpers out there, somewhere. Someday.

That’s the thing about magic numbers.

They always inspire more magic.

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