We live, we're told, in an Age Without Heroes -- or did, until Ronald Reagan came along and told us we could have them back. This the story of how we lost our giants, or some of them, and how we have regained one that perfectly matches the public mood.
No, this isn't about politics or politicians or the president, though I know he approves of the new nominee for herodom, if not the reasoning for my selecting him here.
In the innocent (dare we say corrupt?) days of American sports, when sports-writers proclaimed professional athletes gods, shamelessly glorified their careers, and hid their more outrageous behavior from the fans, Damon Runyon penned a tribute to a star of the time:
"What a football player -- this man Red Grange! Say it again. He is melody, and symphony, on the football field. He is crashing sound. He is poetry. He is brute force."
The best you can say of that effusion is some reputations are better left to rest in peace -- in this case the writer, Runyon, more than the player, Grange. Exhuming them, as you can see, becomes painfully embarrassing. But Runyon was not alone in his excesses. Sportswriters vied with each other in practicing the art of the oversell. Grantland Rice's famous lead to another football story was hailed as "great" in its day. Now it reads as a classic example of overripe writing:
"Outlined against the blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again," he wrote. "In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death. Their real names, however, are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the Notre Dame cyclone."
Those kinds of poetry-in-motion stories helped create the myths of the monumental American sports heroes. In the end, constant repitition in print about their legendary qualities created an opposite effect. Members of the public caught on. They learned their heroes weren't as heroic as reported.
Ty Cobb was a psychopath, given to kicking dogs and cursing blacks. Jim Thorpe was a drunk. Babe Ruth was a notorious boozer and whoremonger. Shoeless Joe Jackson was on the take. Honus Wagner sponged drinks.
The marble crumbled. And that, sports fans, is one reason why we entered this much-lamented heroless age.
Until, that is, last week.
The nominee is a cocksure, pugnacious little guy who knows nothing of the meaning of modesty. He's unabashedly out for himself, thank you, and get out of his way if you know what's best.
For him there's none of that elegant grace under pressure of the imperturbable Joe DiMaggio or the daily sacrificing for the good of the team of the selfless Lou Gehrig.
Graciousness to opponents? Forget it. He says:
"When people ask me, 'Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?' I have to say that there has never been a pitcher who overimpressed me."
Generosity to the memory of past greats? No way. Of the supreme record holder, Ty Cobb, he says:
"I doubt that his lifetime .367 batting average would hold up in modern-day baseball. If Ty Cobb came up in 1963 like I did, he'd have a batting average of about .320."
Given to bragging, endlessly, about his records? You bet.
"In 1976 I tied Ty Cobb's record for the most seasons with over 200 hits -- nine. But it took him 23 years to do it. I did it in 15 years. Bragging? Yes, but I'm proud of my hitting."
"You know, I've probably broken up more no-hitters than any hitter in the history of baseball -- leading off the game with a base hit."
He's Pete Rose, of course, the driven dynamo who burns to possess more and more of one thing -- records -- and who yearns to tell the world about them. "I have gathered together a whole heap of trophies," he says, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. "The only award I've never won and don't ever want to win is the Comeback of the Year award."
On the face of it, Rose isn't the sort who'd qualify for celebrity status. Too loud-mouthed, too pushy, too combative, and, besides, his marriage broke up. Americans still want their heroes to be wholesome, real family-man types, don't they?
He's certainly not lovable, and, I would have argued, even likable.
But last week something else came through that elevated him above the throng. It wasn't just the record-breaking hit he got after the strike-imposed baseball layoff, but a recognition of another trait.
There's no pretension about this Pete Rose. He knows exactly who he is. He's not the most gifted player in baseball history; he's not even especially memorable to watch. But in his less-than-graceful, roughhewn, obstreperous way, he's every bit as good as he thinks he is.
For sheer dogged determination, for refusal to let age still his ardor, for proving year after year that his ambition still glows, we've seen little like him this century. Surely no one has ever tried harder over a longer span of time. At the age of 40 he's eclipsed all but a handful of stars, and don't bet he won't overtake them yet.
Yes, you're a swaggering braggart, the epitome of today's model of looking out for No. 1, but you're real, Mr. Rose, there's not a phony bone in you.
I never thought I'd be joining your cheering squad, but since Damon and Grantland aren't here to cast you in marble, let me say, in today's jargon, Pete, you're my man.