Pete Rose and the Airplane

9 Dec

Pete Rose starred for the Cincinnati Reds through much of his career and in September of 1985 broke Ty Cobb’s record for most hits in major league history. The story goes that once on a team flight the plane began to run into turbulence. Rose looked over at his seatmate, journeyman catcher Hal King, and said, “This plane is going down. We’re going down and I have a .300 lifetime average to take with me. Do you?”

This story gives great insight into Rose’s psyche and may explain part of why he was a great player. Rose was driven first by competition. He wanted to be better than everybody else. He wanted to work harder than anybody. The nickname “Charlie Hustle” was allegedly given to Rose when he ran to first base after being walked in a Spring Training game. It was a derisive nickname, but Rose wore it as a badge of honor. He was driven by his dad and his working class upbringing to prove himself. Rose was also single-minded. He was focused simply on being the best baseball player he could be. Rose was never the most gifted athlete on his team but he probably got more out of his ability than anybody. This story also shows us that Rose lived for recognition of his achievements. Rose wanted to be known as a lifetime .300 hitter. This was his goal. He didn’t care much about being a good husband or father. He didn’t care much about his character in general except when it came to baseball. Then the work ethic and the competitive spirit kicked into gear. There is no sense in this anecdote of any reckoning for his life after the plane goes down, only a sense that his legacy will be summed up by a batting average. The sad truth is that often people who achieve noteworthy things are pretty lousy people when it comes to character.

With Rose, his greatness has been tarnished by scandal. Rose bet on baseball, sometimes even on his own team while he was managing. For years he denied this, but a few years ago he acknowledged the truth. The powers that be in major league baseball have banned him from the game and he has heretofore not been elected to the Hall of Fame (my sense is that this will happen, but probably posthumously).

What’s the moral of this story? Never sit next to Rose on an airplane? Perhaps. But beyond this, we can see from Rose’s quote the idea of the tragic flaw very clearly. Your greatest strength is often your greatest weakness. Competitive? Make sure you are not measuring your worth based on your performance. Make sure you are gracious in victory and know how to handle defeat. Single-minded? Don’t excuse yourself from your responsibilities in other areas due to your pursuit of excellence in your area of interest. Also, watch out that the things that make you great in one area don’t ruin you in another. The same intensity that enables you to get things done in the board meeting may be damaging when brought into the home.

Above all, Rose should teach us to live for something more than a .300 average. This brings me to another baseball story. In the movie Field of Dreams Burt Lancaster plays Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, a man who only played in one major league game and never got to bat.  Graham went on to be a town doctor in Minnesota but always dreamed of coming up to the plate just once. The outlines of this story are true. There really was a “Moonlight” Graham and he actually played minor league ball and appeared in one game for the New York Giants in 1905. In the movie, Graham’s character says, “Well, you know I… I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases — stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?”

Ray Kinsella says to Doc Graham, “Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within… y-you came this close. It would KILL some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it . . . they’d consider it a tragedy.” And Doc Graham replies, “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy.”

A life lived in relative obscurity for that which endures is of far more worth than a life focused on fleeting accomplishments. I have known many simple believers through my life who are far more inspiring to me than the latest “visionary thought leader” to come down the Christian Celebrity road. You don’t have to do anything spectacular and you don’t have to feel guilty for not doing everything. No one can do it all. That’s why we each have different gifts. The real trick is not making your gifts your goal. The golden rule is the goal. Leverage the strength of your life to love God and to love your neighbor. So much of what we are will be seen by no one, will receive no applause, will bring no outward recognition. But it’s the stuff that makes a life. Live well today, so that if your plane goes down, you will not boil your life’s worth down to being the employee of the year in 2013 or a shelf full of bowling trophies.



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