Thursday, August 29, 2013

One Milestone Achieved Without Tragedy or Scandal

By Jeff Kallman

That was no ordinary heave of admiring relief on August 21 when Ichiro Suzuki swatted his way into a club whose membership now numbers six, but includes only one who achieved his membership on international terms. The last time someone passed a milestone in that range or higher, it was achieved with tragedy underwriting it and scandal to follow in due course.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Pete Rose was a certain kind of admirable. It's not that his narcissism was necessarily obscure before the gambling scandal that got him thrown out of baseball. But the manner in which he approached and then broke Ty Cobb's all-time hits record in 1985, whatever preceded it, really was admirable when all was said and done. Like Hank Aaron pursuing Babe Ruth before him, Rose felt the pressures of his team's owner and a few million of its fans hoping he or someone would find a way — any way — to be absolutely dead last certain of getting what he loved to call the Big Knock before the home audience.

The problem, in their eyes, was that Rose tied Cobb on the road and took a legitimate shot at breaking it likewise. It simply worked out that way. Player-manager Rose could have benched himself to save the Big Knock and risk putting himself in front of a commissioner's office probe as to whether he was benching himself for the good of his team or for the good of the home folks and the box office. Against the Cubs in Chicago, there was Rose in the top of the ninth, having already tied Cobb, the game itself tied, refusing to come out for a pinch hitter.

The in-game scenario: the Reds were eight games out in the National League West, barely hanging in in a pennant race, and Rose checked in at the plate with men on first and second, nobody out, and big Dave Parker on deck. Everyone from Reds owner Marge Schott to Joe Fan in the upper deck or in front of his television set was probably screaming, "Sacrifice, you sonofabitch!!!!!" ("I had thirty thousand yelling here," said Rose after that game, "and one lady back in Cincinnati, every time I got a hit, kicking her dog.")

Rose has long since traveled roads better left unpaved by him. On that night, however, he stood squarely on the side of the angels. He knew better than his owner or his fans that sacrificing meant first base open and the bat taken out of Parker's hands. There would be no way the Cubs would let Parker break the tie, never mind break the game wide open. And there'd be nobody to do the clutch hitting but men for whom "clutch" seemed to mean only what you applied shifting gears in your car.

So Rose hit away and, after one hard foul, struck out swinging. And, for one of the final times in his life, a writer (Thomas Boswell, in fact) could and did write of him, "In a season full of drug scandal and labor bluff, Rose showed that somebody still knows what the threadbare phrases 'integrity of the sport' and 'best interests of the game' really mean ... Hit no. 4,192 will be a testament to baseball skill. But no. 4,191 meant more. It was proof of something rarer—a moral sense."

This 2013 season hasn't seen a lot of labor bluff, but it has seen enough drug scandal and a little collateral damage therefrom. (See Ryan Dempster v. Alex Rodriguez.) Which is why, when Ichiro swung into territory inhabited only by Cobb, Rose, Aaron (between the Show and the minors), Stan Musial (likewise), and Pacific Coast League legend Jigger Statz (likewise, but who did most of his hitting in the PCL when it was considered the next best thing to major league competition), Yankee manager Joe Girardi was only the first to heave both a sigh of relief and, perhaps, a quiet thank you.

Ichiro has had about as much to do with scandal as the Yankees have had to do with dairy farming. In two decades worth of records falling or milestones reached and scandal attaching to (it seems) a little more than half of those, swinging his way to four thousand hits without so much as a single innuendo attached to his hide must have made baseball fans across the country and around the world feel loved again.

On the other side of Rose's achievement was a tragedy; on the other side of Ichiro's, a nightmare conquered.

Eric Show, the Padres right-hander who surrendered Rose's Ty-breaking hit, was a badly addled young man. He was a gentle soul but had none of the swaggering garrulousness that made Rose such a public relations hit. Highly intelligent, deeply sensitive, Show was buffeted mercilessly by insecurities, thanks to a violent upbringing from a brutalitarian father who shoved him toward baseball when his heart might really have been in music (he was a gifted guitarist) and in spiritual pursuits.

He was a good pitcher whose inner furies often left him prone to mound mistakes, and thus he entered that game knowing there was at least a 50-50 chance he'd be Rose's milestone patsy. After he threw that grapefruit of a slider, nothing even close to the hard diver that was his money pitch, and Rose hit it inside out into left field, Show walked over to congratulate Rose. Then, as Riverfront Stadium went nuts, the pitcher walked back to the mound and, utterly bewildered, with no teammate approaching him and his back tightening on him for good measure, he sat on the mound for temporary relief.

Show didn't understand until it was too late how unsportsmanlike he looked. But nobody else knew its impetus would open the door to the end of his life. In time he began indulging soft amphetamines to relieve his back trouble, but those proved an opening to harder stuff he took in a failed bid to relieve his spiritual pain. That haunted man, once known among friends and teammates for generosity to the point of madness (he had a habit of dropping $50 bills on perfect strangers at any given time), his marriage in tatters, his addictions unstoppable, closure with his Alzheimer's-ravaged father impossible, died at 37 almost a decade after he surrendered Rose's Ty-breaker.

R.A. Dickey, the former Met who now toils for Toronto, faced and conquered his own furies well before he made a late-life splash on the other side of New York. He wasn't anywhere near any place where he might want to tuck up and hide after surrendering Ichiro's milestone. Unlike Show, Dickey overthrew a nightmare childhood. Show once promised his mother he'd show her what was beyond the moon; Dickey once scaled Mt. Kilmanjaro, which was probably closer.

More unlike Show, Dickey is a pitcher who's gotten better as he's aged, even if he's been struggling this season against his glittering, Cy Young-winning 2012. Certainly he knows there's nothing personal, no suggestion of lack of effort in surrendering both a milestone hit and, subsequently, a 2-run bomb to one of baseball's current hottest hitters, as he did to Alfonso Soriano en route the 4-2 Blue Jays loss.

"You never want to be the guy that gives up the milestone. That being said, what an incredible achievement," Dickey told reporters after the game Wednesday night. "The manner that he's done it is equally impressive. Just the longevity, the endurance, the durability. Having played with him in Seattle, it was a real treat to play with him and it couldn't have happened to a more professional hitter."

Ichiro isn't likely to turn up in Las Vegas or anywhere else earning his living by trying to buy his way back into baseball's good graces when his playing days are over at last. When he shows up in Cooperstown, it'll be to accept his Hall of Fame plaque, not to set up shop signing anything thrust at him for a fee and writing a continuing apology for screwing up. Rose doesn't have the pleasure of sitting with Show signing photographs of the Big Knock. Ichiro and Dickey may yet share that pleasure in due course.

And there won't be a nightmare preceding them or a scandal following their fateful hookup Wednesday night.

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