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Friday, September 10, 2010
Why Pete Rose's record will stand


Twenty-five years ago Saturday, Pete Rose collected his 4,192nd hit, supposedly breaking Ty Cobb's all-time record (today's best information suggests that Cobb actually finished his career with 4,189 hits).

Since then, nobody's approached 4,000 hits, let alone Rose's career-ending total (4,256).

Pete Rose
Pete Rose surpassed Ty Cobb with his 4,192nd hit against the Padres on Sept. 11, 1985.
Will someone, someday?

To answer that question, it's instructive to list the qualities that allowed Rose to reach those lofty marks. It took, among other things, a great deal of skill, a great deal of luck, and a great deal of ... well, of whatever made Pete Rose Pete Rose.

That's a tall order for any other player to fill.

Let's take those in order ...

Rose debuted in the majors in 1963, a few days before his 22nd birthday, and would eventually be named Rookie of the Year. Twenty years later, he played every day for a World Series team. In between, Rose posted a .306 batting average, won three batting titles and one MVP Award.

His skills did not include a proclivity for drawing walks, which might have hurt his on-base percentage but probably helped his ability to pile up huge numbers of hits. Rose topped 200 hits in 10 different seasons and paced the National League seven times in that category. He didn't walk much or hit many home runs, but the man could put the ball in play (and with some authority; he led the National League in doubles five times and still ranks second on the all-time list).

Of course, nobody plays for as long -- and as often -- as Rose did without a little luck. In Rose's first 20 (non-strike) seasons he averaged 157 games per season. Essentially, he was nearly as durable as Cal Ripken ... but for five more seasons.

It helped that Rose was Rose. He once told the writers, "I haven't missed a game in two and a half years. I go to the park sick as a dog and, when I see my uniform hanging there, I get well right now. Then I see some of you guys and I get sick again."

Rose loved baseball. Rose loved to compete. Rose loved to play. He once said he would "walk through hell in a gasoline suit to keep playing baseball." He once said, "Playing baseball for a living is like having a license to steal."

Once, when given a one-game rest by his manager -- when he was 42 years old -- Rose said, "So what do I do now? How do I rest? Do I sit on the bench? Do I stand? I wish somebody could tell me how to rest."

Most players want to play, and for as long as they can. But Pete Rose needed to play. He needed the action. And for more than two decades, that compulsion led to all those games and all those at-bats and all those hits.

Oh, that's another thing. If you're going to clear 4,000 hits you're going to need a lot of at-bats, and it'll help a great deal if you're fast enough to lead off. He might have been something like a fire hydrant, but Rose ran fairly well and led off in roughly two-thirds of his games.

It didn't hurt, either, that for the last couple of years of his playing career, Rose was filling out the lineups as Cincinnati's player-manager. Even at 44, Rose remained a reasonably effective hitter, but catching Ty Cobb would have been slightly more difficult with a manager whose priority was to win games rather than set records.

A few years ago -- OK, let's be honest: one year ago -- it didn't seem completely crazy to suggest that Derek Jeter might someday reach 4,000 hits, if not challenge Pete Rose's record.

Today, it seems crazy. Jeter's got the talent. With the exception of one season (2003) he's had the luck. He was fairly young when he reached the majors; like Rose, Jeter was Rookie of the Year at 22.

The problem is that Jeter's flagging this season and he's only 36. When Pete Rose was 36, he was just beginning a four-year run that saw him average 199 hits per season. And in the fifth year, when he was 41, Rose led the National League with 140 hits in a strike-shortened season.

A year ago, it seemed that Derek Jeter might play forever. This year, it seems that he's human. Which is perfectly understandable. Except being human won't get you to 4,000 hits.