LOOK OUT, TY COBB

It's the season for big league milestones, and Pete Rose is leading the onslaught
April 15, 1985

The long, tortuous road from April to October is so strewn with milestones this year that, if they are all passed, the 1985 season will have achieved a special place in baseball history. Consider the possibilities. Cincinnati's Pete Rose, as anyone who peeks at a sports page must know, needs 95 hits to break a record regarded for six decades as unsurpassable: Ty Cobb's 4,191 career hits. Rose's own timetable has him passing Cobb in late August. Meanwhile, Houston's Nolan Ryan and Philadelphia's Steve Carlton each should strike out his 4,000th batter, another feat of epic proportions.

On a lesser plateau, but certainly no hillock, California's Rod Carew should become the 16th player in history to achieve 3,000 hits. Later on, Chicago's Tom Seaver (288 wins) or New York's Phil Niekro (284) or even Oakland's Don Sutton (280) just might join the exclusive company of those pitchers (16 to date) who have won 300 games or more. The 300 mark has never been passed by three pitchers in one year and only once, in 1890, have two done it.

In addition, New York's Rickey Henderson should steal his 500th base (he needs seven more) and shortly after move into the Top 10 among modern players on that list. California's Reggie Jackson will certainly pad his career strikeout record of 2,247 and almost certainly get the nine home runs he needs to pass Mel Ott's 511, thus earning himself a place in that Top 10. With all of these milestones there for the taking, more games should be stopped this year for ball or base presentation ceremonies than by rain or bean brawls, a milestone in itself.

These facts aren't lost on today's players, who, deep down, have an abiding concern for the numbers they hang up. In fact, Sutton probably would have retired this year if he hadn't had a reasonable shot at 300 wins. And Seaver concedes that the prospect of 300 gives him extra incentive. "I think players today focus more on records than they once did," says Steve Garvey, the collar-ad Padre first baseman and future immortal. Angels pitcher Tommy John seconds the motion. "Sure, the achievements are important," says John, who has pitched for 21 years and won 255 games. "A lot of people have played this game. It's like a ticket into the Hall of Fame."

It is no small tribute to the players closing in on superstats that they have been so good for so long. All are fast approaching or past 40 except Henderson, who is 26. As they blithely challenge records etched, it was thought, in stone by the game's immortals, a possibly blasphemous question arises: Are they truly more talented and durable than past greats? Remarkable as it may seem, if Rose succeeds in his quest, the career records of Babe Ruth for homers, Walter Johnson for strikeouts and Cobb for hits will all have fallen within the past dozen years. Also, if Seaver, Niekro and Sutton reach 300 wins this season, they will be the third, fourth and fifth pitchers to do so in the last four years. How come?

There is no question that the modern ballplayer has access to much improved training procedures and medical treatment. The vastly higher wages players now receive have made their bodies such priceless commodities that the smart ones, at least, stay in shape the year round and report to spring training lean and fit. "It used to be that if you hit age 32, teams started to consider you old," says John, who is 41. "Now at that age, you're just hitting your stride."

John's career was rescued by a miracle of surgery—the replacement of a ligament in the left elbow with a tendon from the right wrist, a medical marvel not available to the game's ancients. Had such techniques been developed, the lamentably brief pitching careers of such sore-arm sufferers as Smokey Joe Wood and Dizzy Dean might well have lasted as long as John's. In Wood's time, a rotator cuff was something worn at the end of a shirtsleeve. Milwaukee relief pitcher Rollie Fingers, the alltime leader in saves (324), has had his career extended at least twice by surgery. Of his serious back injury, he says, "I probably would have been forced to retire if it had happened 10 years ago. I had my surgery, and I was up walking the next day. My dad required the same kind of surgery 30 years ago, and he was in a back cast for 30 days."

Players also eat more wisely, if not better, and certainly not with the gusto of a Ruth, who considered half a dozen hot dogs modest fare. Players look after themselves better in other ways, too. "In the old days, guys used to play when they were hurt because they were too scared to admit it," says the 46-year-old Niekro. "That's why players didn't last as long."

So the modern player, the drug user excepted, is in better shape than his forebears, knows the virtue of training the year round and has the benefit of more enlightened training procedures as well as vastly improved medical treatment. He earns more money, so the incentive to stay in condition and thus play longer is there in abundance. Also in his favor is the dilution of talent created by expansion and the designated-hitter rule, which has been a boon to the aged and infirm of the American League. The increasing reliance on the bullpen has probably prolonged the careers of today's starting pitchers, who, unlike their predecessors, are rarely obliged to finish a game.

With all of these advantages, are players now really any better than they were years ago? That will always remain the unanswerable question. The 1984 Tigers, alas, will never play the 1927 Yankees. Some years ago, but still in the so-called modern era, a reporter asked Lefty O'Doul, himself a .349 lifetime hitter, what he thought Ty Cobb would hit if he were playing at that time. "Oh, about .320," O'Doul replied. "Is that all?" the reporter inquired. "Well," said Lefty, "you have to remember the man is almost 70."

As might be expected, Rose also has a few ideas about how Cobb might fare in the current era. Rose recently recalled an argument he had with the former pitcher and broadcaster Waite Hoyt, who died last year at age 84.

"If Cobb started the same day I did and was still playing as I am, he wouldn't be hitting .367," said Rose of Ty's lifetime average.

"Yes, he would," Hoyt answered.

"No, he wouldn't," Rose retorted. And so it went back and forth.

"I didn't argue with him anymore," Rose says. "He'd kick my butt. I think Cobb's average would still be the highest in baseball history, but not .367. Night games, West Coast travel and specialized relief pitching would get him."

At this point let us pause to commiserate with what can be called baseball's Lost Generation—the players who had some of their best years taken away from them by wartime service. Ted Williams lost virtually five seasons, first in World War II and then the Korean War. When he retired in 1960 at 42, he had a .344 lifetime average, 521 homers, 2,654 hits and 1,839 runs batted in. Projecting his average annual figures onto the seasons he lost, Williams would have hit nearly 700 home runs, had well over 3,000 hits and become the alltime RBI champion with 2,300 or more.

From 1938, when he was 19, through 1941, Bob Feller averaged 252 strikeouts a season. He missed 3½ seasons in World War II. Projections indicate that he would have had nearly 350 wins and more than 3,500 strikeouts had he enjoyed a complete career. Willie Mays missed most of the '52 season and all of 1953 because of the Korean War. He undoubtedly would have topped 700 homers had he not been away.

But this is speculation. It is also speculation when members of the current milestone-passing generation say that theirs will be the last to pursue career records. For that matter, not many generations have. Cy Young could not possibly have known that his 511 wins—"some kind of record," says Niekro—would remain the one, as yet, unassailable career standard. Ruth had no records to break but his own, and so basically had Cobb and Johnson. The Williams-DiMaggio-Feller generation had records denied them. The Mays-Mantle-Aaron generation went after them and set a few, notably the single-season and career home-run records previously held by Ruth. But will the players now in their 20s seriously take aim at the major records in the years to come?

"Today's players lack incentive to excel because of the big-money contracts," says the newly retired Joe Morgan. "I look at players who come into the game nowadays and they play a couple of years and then get a five-year contract for a lot of money. They get a lot too early, and it takes away their incentive to work hard. They don't work hard, they don't excel and they don't stick around in the game that long."

"We might be the last goal-oriented generation," says Sutton. "We are really transition people who started playing before the big salaries. I made $7,500 with the Dodgers my first year, and I didn't care. We were motivated then by goals, not salaries. The players now are earning so much so soon that they're self-sufficient when they're very young. I wonder if some young pitcher will be willing to stay around 20 years to win 300 games if he can ensure his future by winning only 140. I wonder if Dwight Gooden will want to last long enough to get 3,000 strikeouts. I wonder if it will have the significance for him that it had for me or Seaver or Carlton."

Until we find out, we should savor all the more what this generation of over-achievers will be trying to accomplish this season. Rose, of course, typifies the moon-chasing approach. "I'll never get tired of playing," he says. "It's really all I've ever done. I can't get enough of it.... Think about it [the Cobb record]. It will make me number one among all the people who ever played this game. And there've been a lot of people who've played.

"I'd like to be remembered in this game. I'd like a statue of myself in front of the park. I always get chills, still do, when I see the Stan Musial statue in front of Busch Stadium in St. Louis.... My statue would be humanitarian, too. Dogs would love it and some of my best friends could sleep under it."

Sculptor, sharpen your chisel. It's 1985—a monumental year.

ILLUSTRATION

LOOK OUT, PETE ROSE: THE UP-AND-COMING HITTERS

Among players with three to 10 years' experience, these are Sports Illustrated's leading candidates to achieve 3,000 hits, assuming they maintain their current hits-per-game rate and average a reasonable 143 games a season at least until they reach that lofty standard.

CURRENT

Projected

ON ARRIVAL

Player (Team)

Age

Years

Hits

Hits/Season

Age

Year

Season

WADE BOGGS (Red Sox)

26

3

531

182

40

17th

mid '98

TONY QWYNN (Padres)

25

3

362

173

39

19th

early '00

RICKEY HENDERSON (Yankees)

26

6

850

153

40

20th

late '98

KENT HRBEK (Twins)

24

4

503

157

40

20th

late '00

PAUL MOLITOR (Brewers)

28

7

909

169

41

20th

mid '97

EDDIE MURRAY (Orioles)

29

8

1,355

160

39

19th

mid '95

CAL RIPKEN (Orioles)

24

4

569

160

41

20th

early '02

RYNE SANDBERG (Cubs)

25

4

538

159

41

20th

late '00

TIM RAINES (Expos)

25

6

650

160

39

21st

mid '99

LOOK OUT, CY YOUNG: THE UP-AND-COMING PITCHERS

Among players with five to 10 years' experience, these are Sports Illustrated's leading candidates to achieve 300 victories, assuming they maintain their current winning percentages and average a reasonable 33 starts a season at least until they reach that lofty standard.

CURRENT

Projected

ON ARRIVAL

Player (Team)

Age

Years

Wins

Wins/Season

Age

Year

Season

SCOTT McGREGOR (Orioles)

31

9

111

14

44

23rd

mid '98

JACK MORRIS (Tigers)

28

8

107

15

41

20th

mid '97

DAN PETRY (Tigers)

26

6

78

15

41

22nd

early '00

DAVE STIEB (Expos)

27

6

81

15

42

22nd

mid '00

FERNANDO VALENZUELA (L.A.)

24

5

61

17

40

22nd

late '01

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)