Ted Williams said it often. "The single hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball." He didn't mean the simple act of getting a bat on the ball, making contact. For Williams, the only fulfillment was to whack a pitch to some unoccupied region.
When Williams, the greatest of all modern hitters, took his bat to the plate the one thing he had in mind was some kind of a base hit. Any kind. Single, double, triple or the works. Any one of them would be exceedingly gratifying given the difficulty of the problem.
A pitcher throwing a fast ball at 90 mph, not an uncommon speed, is giving the batsman exactly 17/100ths of a second to 1) decide whether to offer at the pitch and, if he decides to swing, 2) adjust to the level and speed of the pitch and 3) hit it out of somebody's reach. Eight gloves, plus the pitcher, are out there saying it can't be done.
All of this in the blink of an eye. And, of course, with curve balls coming out of that pitching fist, another despicable factor is introduced. Ted Williams did not overstate the situation.
It was in these forbidding circumstances that Pete Rose faced big league pitching 13,770 times, scheming, reacting and unloading against pitchers. By the nature of the game, the advantages were stacked against him.
All the more reason to acclaim his 4,192nd base hit that obliterated Ty Cobb's supposedly invulnerable total of 4,191. So roll out the drums, beat the cymbals, sound the tocsins, and proclaim to the world what he did during his 23-year attack on the record: He cut more pitchers down to size than any man who ever lived.
It is to the glory of baseball that no other game played on the nation's fields or in its arenas could bestir a populace to the extremes of suspense and anxiety and hero worship that attended the final count-up to Rose's record-breaking hit.
So Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke Wilt Chamberlain's pro basketball scoring record. Bully for him, but it hardly rocked the nation. Needed to do the trick was just one more sky hook, Abdul-Jabbar's stock in trade. Walter Payton knocked Jim Brown and his yards-gained record out of the box with a final conclusive carry; a one-yard dive would have done. The national excitement was confined to a respectful ripple.
But Rose takes dead aim at Ty Cobb's hit record, and it is a big, big deal, claiming the attention of all the networks, thousands of writers and columnists and enough millions of Americans to add up to the greatest national suspense since the Cuban missile crisis.
Baseball offers a stage that dwarfs all others. In those final days, Rose's every at-bat was watched and weighed. He was inching up to immortality.
For Rose, those final days were not easy, particularly in a season when he was batting .267, and the hits were coming harder.
In his every at bat he was assailed by the questions that afflict every batter facing a major league pitcher: Will he pitch me low? High? Inside? Outside? Is he thinking fast ball or slider? In 17/100ths of a second he would know.
Every ballplayer would testify that getting his first major league hit was a special thrill. The late Bucky Harris once said, "It's like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Says you have arrived. Until you get your first hit in the majors you haven't told pitchers that you're not a patsy."
Thursday night in the New York clubhouse, Yankee players were saying much the same thing. "Sure I remember my first hit," said batting coach Lou Piniella. "Off Tom Hall, Minneapolis left-hander. I must have made 1,700 or 1,800 other hits but that first one sticks out." Willie Randolph, 11 years in the majors, quickly recites that his first hit was Aug. 12, 1975, against Tom Underwood of the Phillies. "And then I got my first hit as an American Leaguer off Jim Palmer in '76. Who wouldn't remember it. It was a home run."
Manager Billy Martin chipped in with his memory of his first major league hit. It was in the opener in Boston in 1950. "I came up twice in the first inning and broke in as a two-for-two hitter. No rookie ever did that before. It wiped out my nervousness"
And every ballplayer will say the second and third hits and all the others are just as hard to come by.
A most sturdy accomplishment is Pete Rose's 4,193 total, and there are more reasons he should be awarded baseball's distinguished service medal.
His September heroics upstaged the drug scandals that are troubling the game, and provided an extra fillip to a year of redhot pennant races. Altogether it has been a noble contribution.