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The Capital Times

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Elias is the infallible, Unflappable Source for Sports

By Tracy L. Ziemer
Weekend edition: August 16-17, 2003

Just the Facts, Ma'am

The cleat mark was the first physical clue that things just didn't add up. Kneeling on the turf with a tape measure in hand, Steve Hirdt painstakingly recorded additional evidence. Then he studied the videotape frame by frame. The ruling, as he suspected, was wrong.

The longest touchdown return of any kind in NFL history was 107 yards, not 108. Hirdt set the record straight.

Equal parts detective, accountant and historian, Hirdt is executive vice president of Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician of Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL, WNBA, MLS and WUSA, the professional women's soccer league. As the most trusted authority in sports statistics, Elias' team meticulously researches achievements for accuracy.

"If someone asks me my middle name, I won't give them the answer until I've checked my birth certificate," Hirdt said during a visit to Elias' Manhattan offices, home of this 24/7 operation.

In the case of a Monday night game between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens last season, Hirdt's extra efforts assured the statistic for the longest return in NFL history was correct in the record books.

Baltimore's Chris McAlister caught Denver's short field-goal attempt and went the distance at the end of the first half. Officials called it a 108-yard touchdown return. Hirdt wasn't so sure.

"Since the field is 100 yards and the end zone is 10 yards, that meant he would've had to have caught it two yards from the end line of the end zone. I was looking at it and thought: 'That just doesn't look like two yards,'" recalled Hirdt, who attends all Monday night NFL games as a service to Monday Night Football, a 21-year Elias client.

Hirdt went on the field at halftime to measure the distance between McAlister's cleat mark in the turf and the end line. Photos and video also supported Hirdt's hunch that the ball was caught seven yards into the end zone. The rest is, quite literally, history.

Elias' statistical handiwork is seen across sports. When Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Scott Podsednik reached base safely in 47 consecutive games, Elias knew it was the longest such streak in the majors this season. In the 1990s, Brett Favre's durability prompted Elias to research the record for consecutive quarterback starts; the bureau noted Favre was pursuing Ron Jaworski's record of 116. Today, Favre's record of 173 consecutive regular-season starts -- and counting -- exceeds Jaworski's record by a greater percentage (49 percent) than Cal Ripken Jr.'s surpassing of Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played record in baseball (24 percent, 2,632-to2,130), a nugget also unearthed by Elias.

It's this ability to put sports achievements into historical context that makes Elias so valuable to the pro leagues and clients ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and other media outlets.

"I probably talk to Elias once or twice a week, whether it be just double-checking a statistic we might have or calling for some research," said Jon Greenberg, the Brewers' director of media relations. "They are an invaluable asset to baseball. They are the people I trust the most."

Elias' evolution into the encyclopedia of sports began nearly a century ago. In the early 1900s, baseball fans and brothers Walter and Al Munro Elias began compiling stats on major and minor league baseball games. Soon, stats-hungry sportswriters sought their data. The Elias brothers became the official statisticians of baseball's National League in the 1920s, and the American League soon therafter.

Seymour Siwoff worked for the Eliases part-time as a teenager and is the burea's current president. He took over the company in the 1950s, after the brothers died. Siwoff slowly built it by increasing its technological capabilities.

The NFL signed on with Elias in 1960, the NBA in 1970, and the NHL in the 1990s. Hirdt, a former high school and college stats keeper, joined the Elias lineup in 1970. Brothers Peter and Tom, and son Ken, are among Elias' 30 employees, too.

In the early days, Elias' services consisted primarily of compiling data rather than providing analysis. Researchers, using pencil and paper, needed hours just to record box scores from the day's baseball games. File drawers of these fragile recordings are still at Elias' offices -- no-frills digs adorned with books of yellowing newspaper clips and towers of reference periodicals.

Now, Elias relies on its customized computer database, a sophisticated Pandora's Box of sports data to which only Elias has the key. "Our database is very, very large. We can usually answer what a team is looking for, sometimes with some additional programming," Hirdt said.

"I'm not sure how I could do my job without them," said the Brewers' Greenberg. "So much about this game is historic reference. Our records from the early '70s aren't the best, so we verify anything back then with Elias. They have an amazing database."

The system is the backbone of the Elias franchise. It's therefore closely guarded and not directly available to clients, who receive differing levels of service depending upon the size of the organization, according to Hirdt.

Small local television stations, for example, may receive only graphics and basic player statistics to flash on screen as a player comes up to bat or goes to the free-throw line.

For bigger clients, Elias also tracks burgeoning streaks and key matchups, and faxes notes to help clients prepare for upcoming games. The bureau logs all information requests so it knows precisely what a client's needs are and structures contracts and services accordingly.

The cornerstone of Elias' services is its speed in responding to requests for statistical information -- the more obscure, the better. When 44-year-old Rickey Henderson homered his first night with the Los Angeles Dodgers this season, the boys at the bureau informed the team he had become the third-oldest player since 1900 to hit a home run in the majors. Only Jack Quinn (46) and Carlton Fisk (45) were older.

A database is only as good as the information put into it. Elias uses team game reports and other sources to verify all stats. If one report says the single was a bloop to center field while another calls it a hit to short, Elias goes to game tapes to decide how the play should be officially scored.

"For football, one of the things we have to do is look at plays that are unclear -- whether the quarterback intended to run with the ball or pass the ball, if he's tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage with the intention of passing or not," said Hirdt. All of these variables affect sack counts, rushing stats, passer ratings.

Sometimes Elias' sleuthing leads to major corrections. Baseball changed Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record from 191 to 190, and added six walks to Babe Ruth's career total, thanks to the bureau's research.

Such niggling is all in a day's work at Elias, where success is measured by speed, as well as longevity.

"When we come up with a stat, people will say, 'How long did that take you?'" Hirdt said, "And I always say, 'Forty seconds and 40 years.' Forty seconds to retrieve it and 40 years to put data in the computer and check it for accuracy."

Staff writer Dennis Semrau contributed to this report.

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