When the symbolic, the statistical and the historic intersect in sports, the larger world pauses in its rounds to pay attention and pass its judgment.
Now in our national on-deck circle, Pete Rose.
Pay attention, America. The middle-aged boy who epitomizes effort, enthusiasm and the willed refusal to grow up is about to have his greatest day.
Although he went zero for four today in Wrigley Field in Chicago, Rose has 4,189 career base hits. Just three more hits and the Cincinnati Reds' player/manager will pass Ty Cobb as the lifetime hit leader among all those who have played major league baseball in the last 116 years.
By a twist of luck and scheduling, Rose probably will enjoy his crowning achievement in the city of his choice, Cincinnati, where he was born, raised and has played 18 of his 23 seasons. Rose, who customarily now plays only against right-handed pitchers, says he will not start Sunday's game against Chicago left-hander Steve Trout. The Reds return home Monday for a 10-game homestand, starting against San Diego.
"The only thing I've ever said about 4,192 the number needed to break Cobb's record was that, of course, I would like to get it in Cincinnati," says Rose, who simultaneously insists that he will, as manager, use himself in exactly the same role he has had all season and that he will give full effort in every time at bat. If that means depriving his team's owner, Marge Schott, of a capacity crowd or two, Rose says so be it.
Only one record-breaking moment in baseball history -- perhaps in any American sport -- has been so long awaited or has engendered so much debate. Eleven years ago, Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run (on the way to 755) to break Babe Ruth's career record. That homer countdown fixed the nation's attention and spurred countless debates about Aaron's worthiness to supplant such a near-mythic figure in so symbolic an athletic category.
Rose's hit total is outrageously improbable, far beyond the dreams, let alone the deeds, of other men. When Cobb died in the summer of 1961, at age 74, it is scarcely conceivable that the incendiary old Georgia Peach could have guessed that the man who'd someday supplant him already was a pro player.
Deep in the Florida State League, 20-year-old Peter Edward Rose already was sliding face-first into bases, sprinting to first after walks and earning the nickname -- at first given sarcastically -- of Charlie Hustle.
As was the case in 1974 with Aaron and Ruth, the linking of Rose's and Cobb's names carries a weight of connotation that goes beyond sport.
The mild, modest, intelligent, well-mannered Aaron was the antithesis of the soft-hearted, sentimental, sensual, fat and loutish Ruth, whose every trait and gesture was larger than fiction.
Aaron and Ruth counterpointed, but seldom illuminated, each other. For Aaron, a black, the chase after the beloved Ruth was often a bitter experience, besmirched by racism and denigration of his achievements.
If Ruth meant raw appetite and Aaron its opposite -- a kind of athletic aestheticism -- then Rose has come to be seen as a mirror image of Cobb. Mirrored in the sense that the features seem familiar and similar, yet somehow reversed.
Both were pure distillations of personality types. Now, across generations, they embody such basic human qualities that their apposition seems to demand a moral response.
Both worked fanatically and played fiercely. Both courted fame and grasped the spotlight. Both amassed fortunes and were shrewd businessmen. Neither concealed his vast pride nor claimed a balanced personality. Neither hid that his drive came almost entirely from his relationship with his father.
Yet there, the two part company.
Cobb, whether mastering the bunt or filing his spikes like blades in the dugout while his foes watched, worked with a demonic, tight-lipped energy. His sport was really warfare where cheating was the rule, violence acceptable and psychological intimidation essential.
By all accounts, Cobb was the best and most hated player of his age. No flattering personal portrait, if one existed, has survived. "I feel like a coiled spring with a dangerous flaw," Cobb supposedly said.
No one ever has claimed Rose was baseball's best player. An ordinary runner, fielder, thrower and power hitter, Rose was only exceptional as a switch-hitter, a distinction he earned as much by diligence as talent.
Rose found labor a rough joy. He never claimed virtue for his work ethic because he never said he wasn't having fun.
If Cobb was swift and gifted, Rose is doggedness incarnate. No player was ever so durable. In 26 professional seasons, he has, essentially, never been injured. Or at least has not admitted it. All the sport's endurance records -- games, at bats -- long have been his.
Cobb may have batted .367 to Rose's .306, but Rose dragged himself to the plate more than 2,200 more times.
In the last four years, as Rose has at times embarrassed himself -- batting .271, .245, .286 and .265 in his unabashed marathon tracking of Cobb -- so some have forgotten how fine a hitter he once was. From 1965 through 1980, Rose averaged more than 200 hits per season. The best leadoff man of his period, and perhaps in history, Rose both scored 100 runs and got 200 hits 10 times.
Where Cobb was a warrior, Rose was a gamesman. Where Cobb was vicious and mean, Rose was fierce and clean. Either might break your leg, but Rose would do it by accident. The best that could be said of Cobb was that he asked no quarter. Cobb had to win; Rose merely played to win. At the height of a famous World Series game, Rose said to Boston catcher Carlton Fisk, "Isn't this a great game?"
Even Rose never has claimed his stature in his era matched Cobb's; Rose is too much a fan, too much a sportsman, to claim an iota more than his due.
But Rose is also too much a competitor to accept less than his due. And he will let anyone, including Cobb's ghost, know that baseball is not an individual sport, but a team game.
That's where Rose shines. Cobb had better stats; Rose had better teams. Cobb isolated himself, divided others. Rose immersed himself in the team and united every club around him. No player ever approached Rose's ability to meld his own glory-seeking with the team's goals. How Rose walked this invisible line, knowing and following every clubhouse rule of proper pecking-order behavior, was a feat in itself.
No veteran ever gave advice or cash more freely to rookies than Rose. No star ever took such care in sharing praise so precisely. Once, Rose gave every coach on his team a free truck as a postseason gift. No reason. Just felt like it.
Somehow, Rose was Me First and You, Too.
This made Rose the most popular, admired and emulated of modern players within the game. A winner.
In fact, Pete Rose was the first historian to note that Pete Rose had actually played in more winning baseball games than any player ever. No one had ever thought of such a category. So Rose invented it.
In 24 seasons, Cobb played on three first-place teams. Rose has been to seven playoffs and six World Series. Two seasons after the Philadelphia Phillies bought him at auction as a $3.2 million free agent, Rose led them to their first world title in 97 years. "If I can do that, I can do anything," said Rose with typical disarming immodesty.
Neither man has left behind much doubt about his emotional mainspring.
Cobb's coiled-spring nature took its basic flaw from his macabre boyhood. Well-born, he fell in love with being a ballplayer against his stern father's wishes. While off seeking his fortune in the disreputable world of pro sport, Cobb learned that his father had been shot to death while climbing in his mother's bedroom window. By his mother.
Cobb's baseball quest became a fixation as he tried to vindicate both his own choice and his father's memory. Rose and his dad were inseparable, connected by sports. A local Cincinnati star athlete, Rose's father could have wished nothing sweeter than that his boy make the majors with the Reds. Rose's father also died young, but not until Pete had been National League rookie of the year.
Like Cobb, Rose proudly dedicated all his deeds to his father's memory. But there the parallel ended. Cobb felt he could never please, so he could never take pleasure. Rose knew he had pleased, so his work became a joy.
Few clearer paradigms of sickness and health have appeared in America's national pastime. Perhaps that is why Rose -- Cobb's inferior as a player -- is seldom begrudged the record he will soon hold.
Rose, who may be the best baseball fan of his time, has given due thought to the issue and decided that he himself is the proper person to hold one of baseball's most seminal career record.
As Rose's final great playing moment approaches, more and more Americans have come to agree with him.
Who knows how long Rose's new hit record will stand? After all, his new son -- Ty Rose -- is not quite a year old.