Weekend at Pete’s
His National Hall of Fame dream over, Pete Rose comes home
He moved carefully, thoughtfully, this man I took to be in his late 80s or 90s. You wouldn’t measure his movement in steps, but more accurately in inches. The steps were excruciatingly slow, but purposeful, not plodding. He worked his body like a man summoning all his limited resources for the task ahead. As he came up the aisle, the standing room crowd behind the seats three deep parted to let him pass. A younger man, a friend or perhaps a son, shepherded him through the throng. The game was minutes away from beginning, but he appeared to be leaving, having already accomplished what he had come here to do.
On June 25th, I too, came to Cincinnati to do my part, to see Peter Edward Rose inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. In today’s current climate, I almost feel the need to apologize.
But screw that.
If you say The Pete Rose Story has jumped the shark, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. I wouldn’t begin to defend his offenses against the game of Baseball. There will be no all caps cri de coeur here. I’m not here to litigate his transgressions or insist he’s paid a sufficient price for his sins. He is, by all accounts, a deeply flawed man. He’s been punished by Major League Baseball, and continues to be punished by the guardians of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, who will never allow the Hit King into their inner sanctum—at least not while he draws breath. Pete Rose knows this.
No, I’m just here to share.
In 2012, when Barry Larkin was inducted, I wrote a piece about my journey to Cooperstown, one that began as a story about the Reds’ HOF shortstop, but evolved—much to my surprise—into a story about the Reds’ prodigal son. Shocked by all the Rose memorabilia on display, not to mention an exhibit dedicated solely to hit 4192, it was clear the Hall coveted Rose’s accomplishments even as they wanted to hold the man himself at arm’s length. Cleaving the deeds from the man himself tears at the logic of it all. It’s like Starsky without Hutch. Mulder without Scully. Cain without Abel.
Whenever I think of Rose, my mind wanders back to a play that actor and playwright Jason Miller wrote in the early ‘70s. In this one-act, Miller’s characters are lost souls, eking out a painful day-to-day existence, their dreams always just out of reach. The middle-aged protagonist revisits a memory of going to Yankee Stadium with his father to see Lou Gehrig, a man his father “loved like a son.” Against all odds, Gehrig proceeds to hit a home run, the ball falling out of the sky into his father’s lap. Father and son wait in the darkness after the game to meet Gehrig:
“Finally, he came out and my father went over and spoke to him in Italian. Then, he did the most incredible thing, Lou Gehrig did the most amazing thing, he hugged my father and then they were laughing together and I remember I started to cry, standing there watching Lou Gehrig hug my father.
“And when Lou Gehrig died, a few years later, the day Lou Gehrig died, my father cried. And that was the first and last time I ever saw my father cry. Even when they lowered my mother into the ground, his face was dry. Even when the scouts came to see me play, even when the big league scouts came to see me play and I struck out three times and they wanted nothing to do with me, he said nothing. But, the day Lou Gehrig died, when he heard the news, he said one thing, “Lou Gehrig did not die of cancer, he died of a broken heart.” Those are the exact and only words he said on that day … isn’t it incredible, that my father could be hurt so much by the death of a stranger? Someone he never even …”
There’s wonder and emotion packed into Miller’s story. It’s that wonder, inextricably bound to an equal measure of sorrow, that resonates with me and colors in the outlines of my memory of Rose; a heartbreaking duality: the player whose star in the firmament seemed permanently affixed; and Rose, the man who fell to earth.
We think we know Pete Rose because he’s so accessible, so plain-speaking and seemingly uncomplicated. He’s a lout to many, lowbrow and even a laughingstock to some, the way he dresses and carries himself well into the seventh decade of his life.
I have found the chalk line that separates Rose devotees from the Rose deniers—those that see the fair and those that see the foul—to be less a matter of geography and more a difference of generation. Without fail, those who label Rose a pariah never saw him play, or only caught the tail end of the Countdown to Cobb. Many young baseball writers and bloggers I read and respect show little for the only Rose they know, wilted with shame, faded by lies, beset with a thorny hubris. Still, those of us who grew up watching Rose in his prime cannot so easily commit the man to the compost heap of hoary history.
To watch him play was to watch both joy and ferocity in cleats. His love for the game resonated all the way to the loge seats atop Riverfront Stadium. He played the way you would if you, gentle reader, somehow had the talent and the drive. Because he was incorrectly viewed as an Everyman who got the most of his perceived limited talent, he made our cheap seat dreams of putting down that hot dog, picking up that glove and stepping onto the field seem slightly less ridiculous that they truly were.
. . .
Few remember now just how close the Big Red Machine came to being remembered as the Big Red Disappointment. They had reached the World Series twice in three years, losing for a second time when a journeyman catcher named Gene Tenace clubbed four home runs before being named series MVP. In 1973, George “Sparky” Anderson’s team again surrendered to an inferior Mets club that had finished the regular season a mere three games over .500. Add in a losing season in 1971 and a second place finish in 1974 — and the 1975 World Series would become a watershed moment for the players who would go on to be known as the Great Eight. Trailing 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the 1975 World Series, Rose’s Reds stood at the brink of another profound disappointment in front of a national audience.
But Rose would not let his team go gentle into that good Fenway night. As Kostya Kennedy chronicled in his book, Pete Rose—An American Dilemma, Rose’s exhortations to his teammates on the bench, his rage and fury in the face of defeat, and yes, his play on the field—breaking up a sure double play that kept the inning alive for Tony Perez’s heroics moments later—would be the difference between memorable and immortality. To be sure, Rose was not the best player on his team. He just drove the Machine. He knew where the ignition switch was and how to put it into another gear.
Would that team have been broken up had they lost Game 7 to the Red Sox? Quite possibly. Would Sparky Anderson have been fired? Entirely possible. Would Tony Perez have found himself on the outside of the Hall of Fame, looking in had the Cincinnati Reds not prevailed? I’m guessing yes.
. . .
I recently attended a book signing for Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution. I happened to be carrying a copy of Kennedy’s exhaustive account of the troubled ballplayer. Kenny glanced at the book and asked if I had seen what he’d had to say about Rose a few days earlier during his Digging Into The Data segment on his show, MLB NOW:
“It would be easy to think Pete Rose was overrated as a player. He led the National League in batting average three times. He also played on great teams in the pre-cable TV and pre-At Bat era, when making the playoffs on network TV was THE way to get famous, to get into the national spotlight.
“But, this guy could really play.”
Kenny went on to cite the numbers during his 12-year prime: 204 hits per season; a .317 average; and on base percentage of .388 that even Joey Votto would appreciate; a healthy .445 slugging percentage (yes, he was more than just a singles hitter); an extra bases taken percentage of 52%, way above average, nearly the same as Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith.
“Here’s the other thing that gets lost with Pete Rose: he played a good second base. But when the Reds traded to get Joe Morgan, he had to move. Rose moved to left field. Pete Rose played a good left field and a good right field. But when George Foster arrived, Pete moved to third base. He moved for the good of his team, like Jackie Robinson did for the Dodgers in the 40s and 50s. And THAT is immensely valuable.”
Brian would go on, remembering that Rose averaged 159 games a year and 730 plate appearances for 16 seasons; that he is 8th all time in total bases, just behind Babe Ruth and ahead of Carl Yastrzemski and Frank Robinson.
And finally, Brian Kenny said this:
“Throughout the history of baseball, there are very few players you would rather have had over a 12, 15 or 20-year period than Pete Rose.”
. . .
Let’s be real. We’re not curing cancer here. When the subject turns to the world of sports and its place in the larger universe of human endeavor, we are often told that sports are a necessary refuge, a respite from the harsh day-to-dayness of this weary world. We are frequently reminded how baseball helped New York heal after 9/11. When JFK was assassinated, a nation found solace in NFL football, mere days after a president died. Pete Rozelle ordained it. A country genuflected.
And yet, sports today sometimes seem as oppressive as the daily grind from which we all seek release. The NFL is routinely referred to as the No Fun League for the joy its masters have legislated from the game. Baseball has its unwritten rules. The simple joy of a bat flip can incite pitches to the head, brawls and other never-to-be-forgotten reprisals. It takes long conferences with ground control in New York and an umpire minyan to decide if a player is safe or out. So, it’s no surprise that we take our games so seriously, so damned piously, that decades of punishment for a man who committed the unpardonable sin of betting on baseball games can still be reasonably seen as not enough.
Yet here we are.
If you want answers, perhaps a good one lies in a memory created in those 90 feet between third base and home plate. Every goal that drove Rose—on and off the field—from the mundane to the magnificent—had the same headlong solution, the obstacle to that goal always something to be run over, around or through, whether the opponent was Ray Fosse, a gambling addiction or A. Bartlett Giamatti. It’s the only way he knew how to play. More to the point, it’s the only way he knew how to live. It brought him greatness. It surely brought him sorrow. But without that trait, maybe he never gets out of Western Hills High. He surely never gets to the big leagues. Never gets to 4192. Never gets to where he is now, for better or for worse.
. . .
I wonder about that older gentleman who came to see Rose on his day at Great American Ball Park. I wonder if, in 1963, he saw Stan Musial, then the National League’s all time Hit King, get his final base hit of a magnificent career, a ball that shot past a callow and crew cut rookie at second base. I wonder if he was watching in October of 1973, the day Rose circled the bases, a day after rolling in the dirt at second with Bud Harrelson, fist raised high above his head, a thrashing home run his reply to a snarling Shea Stadium crowd. I wonder if he saw Rose beat the Phillies on an August day in 1976, scoring on a passed ball—from second base. (And you kids thought only Billy Hamilton performed such feats.)
This fine Saturday in June was not a day for regret. Great American Ball Park, which for years had been surreptitious in its love of Rose—the 14 bats atop the outfield smokestacks winking coyly from right center field—could now fully embrace one of its own out in the open, unabashed and unbowed. The number 14 would join its iconic peers, Hutchinson (1), Bench (5), Perez (24), Morgan (8), Concepcion (13), Anderson (10), Larkin (11), Robinson (20), Kluszewski (18) and Jackie (42) for all of Redleg Nation to see.
When Rose addressed the crowd and declared “God bless the Commissioner of baseball,” the crowd to its credit did not boo, but lightly applauded, a nod to the totality of the Rose story, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; but also knowing this was a day not for eternal judgment, but a celebration of the chief market and good of one man’s time.