Thursday, July 30, 2009

Baseball's Ultimate Hustler

The most unexpected news of the weekend from Cooperstown (apart from Rickey Henderson not referring to himself in the third person even once during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech) was the multitude of suggestions that Pete Rose's "lifetime" ban from baseball might be lifted. When Hank Aaron told reporters that he believed Rose should be in the Hall of Fame, the seismic shift rippled across town to Aaron's good friend, Commissioner Selig. Before the weekend was over, other Hall of Famers had spoken to Selig on Rose's behalf, and several Important People had visited the nook where Rose stations himself on Induction weekends signing autographs. The word is that they weren't there to see his signature.

Many columnists and bloggers are speculating on the loosening of the shackles of shame Rose has been carrying around since he agreed in 1989 to the lifetime ban. People ask me all the time how I feel about Rose, and I always tell them that "nobody has stronger mixed feelings about him than I do." Let me tell you why I say that. It will take two blogs--this one will cover the positive things, and I'll write another about the negatives.

I was raised to be a Cincinnati Reds fan by a baseball-loving father who was born in Cincinnati. That was good enough for me. In March, 1963, we were watching a spring training game between the Reds and Yankees, and the Yankees' announcers started talking about this kid on the Reds who was turning heads in Florida. The supposed conversation had one Yankee telling another, "this kid gets down to first base in 3.5 seconds." The reply was "so what--Mantle gets to first in 3.2." First guy: "On a walk?" The announcers believed the kid was going to take over the second base job from Don Blasingame, a solid veteran who didn't have much pop in his bat (only 41 extra-base hits in the previous two seasons, with over 900 at-bats), even though he wouldn't turn 22 until the second week of the season, on April 14.

After I heard this, I paid even closer attention. My birthday was April 14. I was a few weeks away from turning 12. This guy would be 22. I was born on his tenth birthday. I didn't need to know much else. If he earned a job on my favorite team, he was my new favorite player.

He remained my favorite player for the next 24 seasons, and I can't imagine anyone being a bigger fan of his except for Rose himself. He was obsessed with numbers and loved reciting his stats to teammates, reporters, and anyone else who couldn't help listening. I also kept a running total of all his achievements in my head. On any given day, I could tell you all of his stats for the current season and for his career, and I was constantly extrapolating to estimate what his numbers would be by the end of his career.

I still have an edition of the Neft-Cohen encyclopedia whose section on career statistical leaders is notched with marks showing my projections midway through Rose's career. Somehow, I only had him finishing fourth on the all-time hits list, trailing Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial. Of course I had him cracking the top half-dozen in runs and doubles; currently he ranks sixth in runs and second in doubles.

It was easy to make these projections because of Rose's consistency. Every year he'd hit somewhere over .300 with 200 or so hits, more than 100 runs scored, and 40+ doubles. That was his hallmark: consistency. He gave the same all-out effort every day, and he didn't "give away" any at-bats, as some players do late in a game that isn't close. They'll get up there, take a quick hack, pop out, get the game over with, and go home. Not Rose. Every turn at bat was sacred to him.

Roger Angell wrote about how baseball "defeats time" because there is no clock and as long as you keep getting hits, the game doesn't have to end. Rose played with joy every minute he was on the field; the more hits he got, the longer he could stay out there. If his career mission was to amass statistics--perhaps even the most coveted stat of all, the all-time hits title--it easily accommodated his day-by-day mission to make the most of every chance he had to play the game. A turn at bat was a chance for him to meet the challenge of outbattling the pitcher, to feel the sweet satisfaction of a base hit, to hustle his way around the bases with as much energy and determination as anyone ever expressed on the field, to score runs that would help his team win, to prolong the sheer fun of being in the game, and to advance one step closer to all of those coveted numerical goals.

I shared every one of those missions with him. Watching or listening to a Reds road game, I'd keep a running count of how many batters reached base, knowing that the Reds needed ten in the game for Rose (the leadoff man for much of his career) to get a fifth turn at bat. It mattered to me, for the same reasons it mattered to Rose. It would be one more chance to share the satisfaction of another hit which would enable me to revise my estimates to show that his current pace would now yield 208 hits and 43 doubles instead of a mere 207 hits and 42 doubles.
As Rose's career progressed with one 200-hit season after another, it became more obvious that I had latched onto one of the game's greats. In 1978, when he began to challenge the immortal 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio, I had to be part of it. I spent that summer with my parents in Pennsylvania, and made the three-hour drive to Shea Stadium on July 25 to see Rose break Tommy Holmes' modern National League record of 37 straight games with a hit. No visiting player was more reviled at Shea than Rose, thanks to his pummeling of Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson in the 1973 playoffs, but on this day even the Shea faithful were more eager to witness history than to harass Rose. Fans entering the park got "Go Pete!" banners which we waved when he led off the game. He flied out, but in the third inning he slapped a sharp single between the shortstop and the third baseman, his 38th straight game with a hit. The crowd roared. Tommy Holmes, who worked in the Mets front office, trotted out to first base to shake Rose's hand, and the ovation lasted several minutes. Rose added a double and another single that day, the Mets won 9-2, and everyone went home happy. He stretched the streak to 44 games, tying Willie Keeler for second place behind DiMaggio, before taking the collar in Atlanta.

That 1978 season was a highlight reel in itself for Rose. On April 29, he had the best game of his career, also at Shea Stadium, a game I watched on television from Montana. After striking out to start the game, he ripped three home runs along with a pair of singles, scoring four times in a 14-7 trouncing. That was quite a display for a leadoff batter who hit only 7 home runs that season and never more than 16 in one year. (He matched Ty Cobb with that lone three-homer game.) A week later, facing the Expos, he stroked a single for hit #3,000 in his career. He finished the year with 3,164 hits, an average of 198 for his 16 seasons with the Reds.

Then he did the unthinkable: he filed for free agency and sold himself to the highest bidder, the Phillies, leaving his hometown team for greener pastures (to the tune of $3.2 million for four years). But he was 37 years old, the Big Red Machine's glory years were past, and it was time to move on. When the 1979 season began, I was on an extended vacation in Europe, hoping to stay through the summer, and could only follow baseball via the International Herald Tribune, which published just the line scores and a sentence or two about each game. Rose got off to a sluggish start but got hot in May with a rash of multi-hit games which made those brief game accounts. On May 18, I saw the line score from the previous day's game at Wrigley Field between the Phillies and the Cubs. I couldn't believe it: Phillies 23, Cubs 22. Rose had three hits, scored four runs, drove in four, and raised his average to .351. I was back in the United States a week later; I couldn't bear to miss any more of his big games.

Rose hit .331 that year at age 38, with his usual output of 208 hits, and even stole 20 bases for the only time in his career. In 1980, he dropped to a .282 average, only his second year under .300 since 1964. In the postseason he hit .326, helping lead the Phillies to the first World Series title in franchise history and providing the team's signature moment when (playing first base) he was Johnny-on-the-spot to snag a bases-loaded popup that squirted out of the mitt of catcher Bob Boone. That hustling catch was pure Rose, and it left the Phillies one out from the championship they secured when Tug McGraw fanned Willie Wilson.

Rose turned 40 in 1981 but didn't slow down, batting .325 and leading the league in hits during the strike-shortened season. That was his last productive, "Pete Rose type" of season. It left him with 3,697 hits, not quite 500 shy of the record established by Cobb more than a half-century earlier. He played every game in 1982, lopping 172 hits off of Cobb's lead and passing Aaron to move into second place. But he batted only .271, and that fell to .245 in 1983, when he teamed with former Big Red Machine stalwarts Joe Morgan and Tony Perez to form the core of the "Wheeze Kids" who brought another pennant to Philadelphia. Again he excelled in the postseason, batting .344, but the Phillies fell short in the World Series against the Orioles.

Despite the gradually diminishing hit totals (just 121 in 1983), there were plenty of glorious moments for Rose during his five-year run with the Phillies, and it was still a joy to watch him play. He never stopped hustling, whether it was that dash to first base on a walk, even faster races to try to beat out any ground ball, feverish flights around the bases in the effort to score another run, and similar all-out efforts in the field. The hits piled up (albeit mostly singles by this stage), and when the Phillies released him after the 1983 World Series, his total stood at 3,990, just 200 behind Cobb. Shortly before my father died that winter, we discussed Rose's chances of signing with another team and resuming his chase of Cobb. "Someone will want to capitalize on it," I remember telling him. "With his determination, nothing will keep him from breaking Cobb's record."

A dozen days after my father died, Rose signed with the Expos, an incongruous destination for his march on Cobb. Indeed, despite passing the 4,000-hit milestone in an Expos uniform, he stayed in Montreal only until August, when another unthinkable thing happened: he was traded back to the Reds to become their player-manager. The Reds were mired in fifth place with a 51-70 record, but Rose's return sparked the team and its fans. In the Reds' previous home game, fewer than 18,000 fans paid to see them face Nolan Ryan. More than 35,000 attended Rose's return, and he responded by singling in a run in the first inning and driving in another run later as the Reds won 6-4. He followed with a pair of three-hit games, added four more three-hit efforts in a row in September, and to the delight of his hometown fans (and me) wound up hitting .365 after rejoining the Reds.

In 1985 he couldn't maintain that pace, but as manager was certain to pencil himself in the lineup often enough to catch Cobb. He picked his spots, starting about two-thirds of the time and getting on base nearly 40% of the time. On September 11, he stroked a single to left field for hit #4,192, passing Cobb and thrilling a crowd of over 47,000 at Riverfront Stadium. He finished the season at 4,204, then hung on through a mediocre 1986, surrendering his regular job and adding 52 more hits to finish at 4,256.

He remained as the Reds manager and did very well. He took pretty much the same roster that finished fifth in 1984 and led them to four straight second-place finishes. The consensus view at the time was that his teams weren't overly talented, but he motivated them to play as hard as he had, helping them to overachieve.

That was truly the Pete Rose mold. He himself wasn't blessed with huge talent. Adept at making contact with the ball, he provided the model for later hitters like Wade Boggs and Ichiro Suzuki, trying for singles and doubles rather than home runs. Not a particularly fast runner, he made up for it with aggression, always trying for that extra base and keeping the pressure on the defense. He wasn't a notably graceful fielder either, but made himself valuable to his teams for two decades through his willingness and ability to play whatever position would make the team stronger. The only player to start the All-Star Game at five different positions, he moved from the outfield to third base to make room for George Foster, who became the RBI leader on the Big Red Machine. In the field, he was sure-handed, with an accurate if not strong throwing arm. He led the league in fielding position four times, at three different positions, and won two Gold Gloves.

Above all, he was the role model for a generation of players, the poster child for the value of hard work and hustle on the baseball diamond. Following his lead, I became a switch-hitter as a teenager, and when playing pickup softball games I always ran as hard as I could even on routine grounders. He maximized his talents and then some, and through perseverance broke a record that had been regarded as one of the most unbreakable. Even in exile, he is cited as a prime example of how the game should be played.

When he retired, I had a feeling that he would become the first unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame. The numbers were undeniable, probably beyond what even he projected when he was in his twenties: a .303 average, 4,256 hits (including 3,215 singles and 1,041 for extra bases), 2,165 runs, 1,314 RBI, 1,566 walks, 746 doubles, 198 stolen bases, 16 All-Star games, 6 pennants, 3 World Series titles, 3 batting titles, the 1973 NL Most Valuable Player Award, and so on.

I also thought that his popularity with the writers might garner a unanimous vote. He was always willing to talk (and brag), always there with a quote, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Nobody had more energy or flair (along with popularizing the head-first slide, he invented the "break-away" catch of fly balls that was emulated by Rickey Henderson and others), and nobody was happier to be playing baseball than he was. How could anybody not vote for him?

Well, he lost his way and created a way for nobody to vote for him. That situation might or might not change. But I agree with Hank Aaron. Based on the numbers, he should be in the Hall of Fame no matter what else he did.
[Next time: the flip side]

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