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Goldman's baseball quotables #5: Pete Rose, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Pete Rose flies the unfriendly skies and opens a window into his character -- and maybe ours as well -- proposing to die happy based on a particular accomplishment. But was it really all he implied it was?

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Pete Rose Meme

This is not a story about Pete Rose's lifetime ban from Major League Baseball or his exclusion from the Hall of Fame. I'll have one of those at the end of the week. Paraphrasing something Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, if you like that sort of thing then that will be the sort of thing you like. This one is about the meaning of numbers -- a .300 batting average or 4,256 hits.

Rose asked the question above to his airplane seatmate Hal King, a reserve catcher on the Reds, in 1974. King was in his last season in the majors. He was 30 and hit a career .214 in 322 games. Rose finished up that season with nearly 1,600 games played, over 2,000 hits, and a .316 batting average. He was 33 years old and apparently a hell of a guy to sit next to on an airplane. He's like William Shatner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" except he's cool with the gremlin on the wing; he's got a .300 average, so he's going to a better place.

...At which point Ronald Reagan appears just outside the frame, saying, "We'll ride it down together, son." No, wait; that's a different series of quotables, though one well worth pursuing.

Rose finished with a .303 batting average and the aforementioned number of hits. He surpassed Ty Cobb's career total in 1985. It was a hollow victory over the dead man. Through his age-40 season, Rose had a .310 average and roughly 3,800 career hits. He played another 625 games as a first baseman averaging .261/.348/.315 (OPS+ 86). The 1983 Phillies won the National League East in spite of him (though he hit very well in the postseason), and his subsequent teams endured the presence of a first sacker older than Jason Giambi is now because as manager Rose could write his own name in the lineup and worked for an owner who was more concerned with dogs and Hitler than winning a pennant.

Cobb retired at 41, coming off a .323/.389/.431 season. His legs were shot, but had he cared to move to first base and continue to play until long after he had exhausted his own utility, he could have put his hits total into the same unreachable intergalactic void into which Cy Young towed his win total.

Even if Rose's record didn't lack quality, what does it mean to have the 109th-highest batting average in 20th century-and-up major-league history or the most hits of any man ever to have played? Had the gone down, as Rose joked (or maybe, as in the climactic scene of "Almost Famous," he meant it), what was he in fact taking with him?

On a purely factual level, the answer is nothing. As the title of the classic play says, you can't take it with you. Even if we're less literal than that, what there is nothing you can hold in your hand. It is an abstraction. If you were a Rose fan at the time he was active, you might remember the frisson of pleasure some of his hits brought you, but even then, there's nothing tangible there, nothing that existed beyond the inning in which it was made. He gave you a fleeting moment of joy. That's valuable, to be sure, for how many real moments like that do we get? Yet, that first-hand experience only lives as long as memory, and then that, well, you do take it with you. It expires when you do.

It seems fair to guess that Rose wasn't laying claim to that, to the ideas he had put in your head. He was proclaiming his own accomplishment, which was really a series of discrete accomplishments composed of going 3-for-10 over a sustained period of time, the value of each hit determined largely by context. You can't even compare it to something that was supposedly great, but mostly lost to us, like (say) John Barrymore's famous stage "Hamlet" of 1922. We can at least mentally, pardon the expression, ballpark that. We have the text, a brief recording from later, films of the actor in other roles (try the screwball comedies "Twentieth Century" and "Midnight") . We can do the something like that with old-time ballplayers too, combine stories, statistics, and snatches of film to form a picture of them, even those we've never seen, like Cobb, or, if you're younger than I am, Rose. But a .300 average? You can't take a picture of it. It's not a quality demonstrated or a thing made. It's evidence of a skill, maybe -- or it might be 1930, in which case, hey, sorry, never mind.

We are all of us now in an America of Pete Roses, riding the plane down and thinking we have something when all we have is a concept of quality. Lacking the ability to come together behind corporeal projects in the real world (except, perhaps, taxpayer-funded stadia), we've invented a vast empty space, the Internet, and now labor to fill it, mostly with fungible, trivial works (such as this one). Our works will line no shelves, but may one day be remembered on some list or inventory, like Rose's .300 average. When the economy died six years back, some of us discovered that a vast trade had strung up in assets that were fractions of assets that were fractions of assets that were not, in fact assets. In direct contradiction of Albert Einstein, nothing was created but much was destroyed.

Compare that with Eerie and Panama Canals; the transcontinental railroad; the post offices, schools, National Park lodges, and reforestation of the New Deal. We  built the Empire State Building in the depths of the Great Depression, and rolled tens of thousands of tanks off of former automobile assembly lines during the Second World War.

Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon -- a WPA project of the 1930s (Wikimedia Commons).

Those things mostly happen in other places now. We are in a decadent phase, when the bridges, roads, pipes collapse and even the Capitol dome is crumbling. Sitting in traffic recently as I made my way into New York City, I wondered, "If this is a democracy, when exactly did we vote to do this?" There was no such vote, but it didn't just happen either. The money for it went other places, such as the creation of wealth for its own sake -- again, an abstraction.

Each of Pete Rose's 4,256 hits had a shorter lifespan that that of a mosquito. Some of them were valuable to great baseball teams. Increasingly they were not. They were valuable to Rose's ego. The same thing is true of the accumulation of wealth that erects no buildings, digs no trenches for fast trains, that funds research into clean energy. Inert money is no money at all. By all means, as John Lennon sang, serve yourself: See to your subsistence, see to your comfort, see to your luxury. See to those things for your great-great grandchildren, but while you do, for god's sake, build.

That way, when Pete Rose asks you that question about his .300 average on that falling airplane, you can say, "It's a cure for cancer." "It's a building 100 stories tall; it houses thousands." "It is potable water brought to a dry country." What can Pete Rose say to that?

Put not your faith in false prophets like Pete Rose, or for that matter, false profits. What if Hal King had written a story or a song, drawn a picture or planted a tree? He would have perished the bigger man. You can kiss a girl under a tree. Have you ever tried it? If it's just the right moment, a cool breeze will come up and ruffle your clothing just slightly. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world, like a base hit in the nick of time... but with more lasting meaning.

If it's the right girl, and the right tree, you can go back again and again, more than three times in 10 tries. Some trees last hundreds of years. Some kisses too.

The text of today's sermon comes from Voices of Baseball by Bob Chieger (1983). It's a slim paperback that has many of the classic quotes, but also quite a few that are obscure today. Added plus: Unlike some books of baseball quotations, it contains a serviceable index. The only thing less useful than a quote-book without an index is a glove on Eduardo Nunez.