Unfinished business: Rose's record hunt
Chances are 99 percent of the players involved in baseball's current strike over free-agent compensation are thinking primarily about the money they are losing. One of the few exceptions is probably first baseman Pete Rose of the Philadelphia Phillies, who has always attached great importance to base hits.
When the strike was invoked on June 12, Rose was just one hit away from breaking Stan Musial's all-time National League total of 3,630, all acquired while Musial was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Although Hank Aaron actually has more hits than Rose or Musial, 171 of his 3,771 hits came while playing for the American League's Milwaukee Brewers.
In catching Musial, Rose was working on a 14-game hitting streak when the strike interrupted. He was batting .333 and leading the National League in hits with 73, which projects out to 216 for a 162-game season. That figure would leave him just 216 for a 162-game season. That figure would leave him just 16 shy of Aaron and within striking distance of Ty Cobb, the all-time leader with 4 ,191.
Although several former major league players arrived at the 3,000 hit-plateau at a younger age than Rose, none ever did it in fewer years. Now in his 19th big-league season, Pete reached 2,000 hits; 2,500 hits; 3,000 hits, and his current total faster than anyone else.
If Rose can play for 24 years (the way Cobb did) and maintain his current average of 198 hits per season, he would easily break Ty's all-time record.
Rose disconcerted me once, though unintentionally, in front of a dugout laced with players and writers. When finished with the usual stock discussion about his tremendous desire, I asked him what else he depended on.
"Feel these," he replied, pointing to his thighs. "Come on," he insisted, "feel 'em." I did and they felt like rocks. It was like pushing your thumb against a piece of steel -- no give at all.
"Legs are what keep you going in this game, and as long as you can run well you can play," Pete added. "I also learned to switch-hit early in my career because I figured it gave me an extra weapon."
Rose is extremely proud of his father, a bank clerk who played semipro football until he was 40 and had the same kind of aggressiveness as his son.
"My father taught me that the only way you can become good at something is to practice," Pete told me. "It's easy to practice what you're already good at and that's what most people do. What's tough is to go out and work on the things you don't do very well."
The thing most people can't understand about Rose is how a 40-year-old can play every game as though he were still trying to make the club, even to the point of sliding into bases head first.
Rose has never showed much grace in the field, although he seldom fails to get the job done and has been an all-star at four positions -- second and third base, right and left field. He has never had a lot of range; his arm is average; and when he played third base his chest sometimes had a better afternoon against ground balls than his glove.
But there are very few players with better instincts for where the ball is going. Still, Pete often takes 100 ground balls from a coach before a game.
"I've seen a lot of ballplayers who perform well for 10, maybe even 12 years, then discover they couldn't do it anymore," Rose once told reporters. "That's why I'm not so proud of having stayed around for 19. Maybe I'm not as good a hitter as Musial was, but the day is coming when I'll be able to say that I got more hits than he did."