Pete Rose's assault on Cobb's record spotlights difference in eras

Pete Rose hustles, he gets the most out of his ability, and he always puts his team ahead of himself. To me, he's what the game of baseball is all about. The record Rose tied Sunday -- Ty Cobb's career hit total of 4,191 -- is arguably the most impressive statistic of all in a sport that thrives on statistics. To reach such a milestone requires not only exceptional skill in what has been called the game's most difficult art, but the endurance to keep at it day in and day out for decades.

Clearly, his inevitable breaking of the record will always rank as one of the monumental individual achievements in the game's history. But that doesn't change the fact that the media circus surrounding his quest, coupled with the explosion of stories and interviews still to come, adds up to a truly ridiculous case of overkill.

How many times, after all, does a person with an IQ over 75 want to read the same stories, the same quotes, the same set of statistics over and over again? We've been seeing them periodically ever since the season began, and on virtually a daily basis for the last few weeks. Rose can't go anywhere without hordes of media types bombarding him with questions and duly recording his replies as though they came from Delphi.

The thing that makes it basically a non-story, as Rose himself has pointed out a few thousand times, is the inevitability of the achievement. This isn't like Roger Maris in 1961, with everyone wondering if he could break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in one season, or George Brett bidding to hit .400 a few years ago. It's not even like Rose's own 1978 hitting streak that fell 12 games short of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game record.

Those stories were full of suspense. Will he or won't he? This one, though, has been just a case of waiting it out -- as when Hank Aaron broke Ruth's career home run record of 714 in 1974. No uncertainty. No drama. Just a monotonous grind, day after day, toward an already known conclusion. But in this era of the ``media event,'' such facts don't seem to matter -- as witness the full circus treatment both the Aaron and Rose stories have received.

Mercifully, Rose's two hits Sunday in Chicago just about assured that his quest would end this week, making him No. 1 on the career list. But of course that doesn't really mean he is the game's all-time greatest hitter.

Batting averages are the traditional method of establishing who is or was the best hitter, and by that criterion, Cobb is still head and shoulders over all of his rivals. The famed ``Georgia Peach,'' who played from 1905 through 1928, won 12 batting titles, hit over .400 three times, and compiled a .367 lifetime average -- by far the highest of all time. Rose isn't even close at .305, and only by coming to the plate an additional 2,000-plus times has he been able to approach Cobb's hit total.

The other side of this coin, however, is that batting averages were generally higher in Cobb's day -- leading to the conclusion that conditions favored hitters then more than now. The stability of playing all day games, with longer stays in each town, certainly helped hitters get into a more regular groove. Conversely, today's constant hopping around from city to city and from day to night games undoubtedly takes its toll.

Also, today's fielders with their bigger and more effective gloves stop or catch a lot of balls that may have gone through in the old days. And most important of all is the greater use of relief pitching specialists -- forcing modern hitters to face people like Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage in those late-inning spots where Cobb & Co. fattened up their averages on tiring starters.

So comparing hitters from one era to another is risky business, and something that can't be proved one way or another anyway. But Rose would be the first to tell you that in terms of pure hitting, he isn't even the best of his own era -- a distinction that goes without question to Rod Carew, with his .330 lifetime average.

Of course endurance, stamina, and longevity are parts of the equation too -- and in this sense Rose is indeed the best. Add hustle, desire, leadership, and the willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the team (as shown by the way he has moved around to five different positions in his career), and you certainly have the epitome of a ballplayer's ballplayer.

No one could be more deserving, then, of all the accolades that have come Pete's way in his illustrious career and that are reaching a climax now. And undoubtedly no one will be happier than Rose himself when he finally can get rid of all the media hordes and go back to doing the thing he loves best -- playing baseball -- without all the hoopla that has accompanied these last few weeks.

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