He moved carefully, thoughtfully, this man I took to be in his late 80s. 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 three deep behind the seats 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 see.
On June 25th of 2017, I too, had come to Cincinnati to see Peter Edward Rose inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. Today, I almost feel the need to apologize.
If you say The Pete Rose Story has jumped the shark, you’d be spot on. I wouldn’t begin to defend his offenses against the game of Baseball. There will be no all caps cri de coeur here about his gambling. I’m not here to litigate his transgressions or insist he’s paid a sufficient price for his sins. He always has been, 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.
Little more than one month after his Reds Hall of Fame induction, things would get significantly worse for Rose the human being, as we discovered just how awful a person he could be. But first, we must talk of other days. To fully comprehend the fall, we must traverse the heights from which he descended.
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 base hit 4192, it was clear the Hall was more than willing to enlarge Rose’s deeds on the field even as they wanted to hold the man himself at arm’s length. Inducting the armor of his accomplishments on the second floor above, while pretending he didn’t exist in the plaque room below seemed to be tearing at the logic of it all. It was like Lennon without McCartney. Butch without Sundance. Cain without Abel.
Whenever I would think of Rose in those days, my mind would wander back to a play that actor and playwright Jason Miller wrote in the early ‘70s. In his 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 would resonate with me and color in the outlines of my memory of Rose back then; a heartbreaking duality: the player whose star in the firmament seemed permanently affixed; and Rose, the man who fell to earth, a sad sack sitting at a folding table in Vegas, scribbling his name over and over again for the forever faithful, turning his ink into dollars and cents.
When the subject was solely about his banishment from the game and his gambling indiscretions, there seemed to be a chalk line that separated Rose devotees from the Rose deniers—those that saw the fair and those that saw only the foul—a demarcation that was less about geography and more a difference of generation. Without fail, those who would label Rose a pariah and use it to diminish his accomplishments 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 showed little for the only Rose they knew, wilted with shame, faded by lies, beset with a thorny hubris. Still, those of us who grew up watching Rose in his prime could not 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, 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 just 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.
Had Rose not broken up that double play, there are arguments to be made: the team would have been broken up following a loss in Game 7. Sparky Anderson would have been fired. Tony Perez denied entry to the Hall of Fame years later. No Great Eight.
Years ago, I 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.”
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 the shadows of Bold Face Park and Western Hills High. He surely never gets to the big leagues. Never gets to 4192. Never gets to where he is now, for better and for worse.
I wondered about that older gentleman who came to see Rose on his day at Great American Ball Park. I wondered 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 wondered 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 wondered if he saw Rose beat the Phillies on an August day in 1976, scoring on a passed ball—from second base.
On that brilliant sunshine Saturday in June, 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—would 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 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 what we thought at the time was the totality of the Rose story, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
But there would be more to discover about Rose, because there was always something more; something that would shake the foundation your memories and unsettle your gut. In a foolish and fateful decision, he would sue John Dowd, Giamatti’s bloodhound, for defamation after Dowd went on a radio station and accused the disgraced Red of statutory rape. He apparently didn’t realize Dowd had the goods in the form of a sworn statement from a woman who was 15 at the time. Case dismissed.
The ugliness, quietly laying there for all to see for five years, was revived this month when the Philadelphia Phillies made the clueless decision to invite Rose to a celebration of the organization’s 1980 World Championship. Rose, ever the man of poor decision-making, would accept. When the subject came up—as he knew it would—Rose responded to female Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alex Coffey with his usual panache:
“No, I’m not here to talk about that. Sorry about that. It was 55 years ago, babe.”
Gone now is all semblance of the Rose of my youth. All that remains are a winter forest of thorns rending its inhabitants and all memory to tatters, taken now to the wind. In one breath, the act is unspeakably muted in disbelief — in the next, it wails in full horror at the indecency of it all. This was a child, after all. Now all that’s left are the bystanders — Cincinnatians mostly — bloody on the battlefield of opinion.
There are the tribal, as always. Those who will bend their will to the Hit King, no matter the carnage. For whatever reason, they can no more cleave themselves from the past than the thirsty can refuse water. With each wanton excuse, the tongue grows heavier, more incoherent.
There’s Tom Tsuchiya’s bronze masterpiece resting out front on Crosley Terrace, now transformed into tin at the hands of its living, breathing inspiration.
There is the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club, who could have sent a message to not only to their faithful female patrons, but to all thoughtful and decent customers passing through the turnstiles by removing the awkward tribute.
Most importantly, there’s the girl, decades older now, who must feel victimized all over again.
Finally, there’s the rest of us. Once upon a time, there was a path to forgiveness for Rose if one was so inclined to do so. If you believe gambling is a disease, if you believe Baseball instituted special rules to block his way into the Hall, or as Kostya Kennedy once wrote:
“The argument against Pete Rose being in the Hall of Fame … had devolved, now turning not upon his violation of a sacred baseball tenet, but rather on whether a voter liked the guy or not.”
… then there was reason enough to if not forgive — understand.
Many celebrated the summer of Pete Rose. And when the fall came, we, again in Kennedy’s words, felt “the depth of Rose’s limitations, how ill-equipped he is to answer the demands for humility, contrition and self-awareness that society asks of him. It is indeed enough to make you feel, if not empathy, sympathy after all.”
Those days of sympathy are long gone now. The hard winter of Pete Rose has blasted us headfirst and the foul weather that accompanies it is unavoidable. All that remains now is bloody judgment.