Pete Rose and the best 20 minutes in baseball

pete-rose-asg.jpgPete Rose was introduced to a big ovation at Tuesday's All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

Early one March morning in Vero Beach--this was in the late 80s--I wandered out to a practice field where visiting teams worked out before playing exhibition games with the Dodgers. A few minutes later, I was joined by Jim Murray, the great sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

"Waiting for Pete?" Jim asked.

"I sure am," I said, happy to have my choice of a column subject receive such lofty validation. Jim and I chatted for a while until the Cincinnati Reds' bus pulled up, but as the players and coaches got off we were disappointed to see that their manager was not among them.

"I hate to miss those easy ones," Jim said.

Not to worry, one of the coaches told us. Pete Rose had stayed behind in the Reds' camp to oversee a morning workout. He'd be along in a while. And sure enough, an hour or so later Pete drove up, saw us waiting for him and walked over to give us what I always thought was, for a writer, the best 20 minutes in baseball.

We asked short questions, Pete gave long answers--I sometimes thought he knew what made a good story better than we did--and we wrote down everything he said. We then shook his hand and wandered off with the contentment that only a columnist who has one in the book before noon on a spring day in Florida can truly know.

A year or so later, Pete got into a fair amount of trouble that you may have heard about--it was in all the papers--and while even those of us who admired Pete were surprised and disappointed by what he had done, we were also startled with the vehemence of the anger that continued to come his way years later when it was time to assess his baseball legacy.
Elected to the Hall of Fame? Pete wasn't even allowed on the ballot, where you will find Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and other baseball miscreants to this day. If you wanted to vote for him, you had to write him in and even then the Hall wouldn't tell you how many votes he received unless you called and asked.

Here, I think, is the most important thing about Pete as a ballplayer. Whenever you saw him play, you couldn't help but notice that he wasn't the fastest man on the field. He didn't have the most power. His swing wasn't one you'd want young players to emulate. He was far from a picture of grace in the field. I think may be fair to say, in fact, that he achieved more with fewer natural gifts than any other player the game has ever known. I also think it's fair to say that despite his limitations, he was the very spirit of baseball during his playing career.

I never saw a man who enjoyed being a big-league ballplayer more than Pete did. Or a man who enjoyed being a baseball star more than he did. Or a man who enjoyed talking about the game, dissecting the game, deconstructing the game, being around the game, luxuriating in the game more than he did. And I never anyone else play the game with more passion that he did.

Around the time Pete was chasing Ty Cobb's career record for hits, Doug Rader, who was a very good National League third-baseman, gave this analysis of his approach to baseball. If it was the ninth inning and his team was winning 10-0 and he had already had two singles, a double and a triple, Pete would be digging into the batter's box, fouling off pitches, gesturing at the pitcher with his bat and trying for that fifth hit just as hard as if it was the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of the World Series, the score was tied and the bases were loaded.

I have two stories about Pete's quest to break Cobb's record that for me sum up his attitude about baseball on and off the field. One is about tying the record, the other about breaking it. Let me tell you the second one first.

The Reds were in Cincinnati and if I recall correctly it took three or four nights for Pete to finally get the record-breaking hit. Needless to say, this caused some problems for the hundreds of us who had gathered to record the event and who had to write something every night whether he broke the record or not.

Now if ever a player had earned the right to shut himself away in the trainer's room before a game, to send word that he'd meet the press afterwards because he wanted to concentrate on the business at hand, this was that time for Pete. He was approaching the single greatest moment of his career, the breaking of one of baseball's greatest records, and nobody could have blamed him if he wanted to be alone with his thoughts.

But here's what Pete did. Every day at 5 p.m., he led a parade of media through the basement concourse of Riverfront Stadium to an empty equipment room where he stood in front of a microphone and, because there were so many of us, the best 20 minutes in baseball became the best 40 minutes. We asked him everything we could think of, wrote down everything he said, went up to the press box, had a nice dinner and started writing, pausing only when he came to bat. By then, we didn't care if Pete broke the record that night or not. We were good.

As for the game in which Pete tied the record in Chicago, it started for me at Soldier Field. The Bears were playing their home opener and Pete, who was the Reds' player-manager and was two hits shy of the record, had said he wouldn't play because the Cubs were starting a left-hander and at this stage of his career he only started against right-handers. So the national press corps went home to spend Sunday with their families and made plans to catch up with Pete a couple of days later in Cincinnati.

Even the biggest cynic could see the wisdom in this. Pete would tie and break the record before the home-town fans, who would cheer him to the skies. The Reds would publicize the two events within an inch of their lives and have a couple of nice paydays, and Cincinnati would have a great civic party that would last as long as it took Pete to get three hits. What could be fairer than that?

Not long after the kickoff, my phone rang. "Do you know what's happening here?" the reporter covering the game at Wrigley Field for my paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, said.
"Tell me," I said.

"Pete's playing," he said.

"That's not funny," I said.

"I'm not joking," he said.

"Be right there," I said.

I reached in my bag, pulled out my Cubs' credential, draped it around my neck over my Bears' credential and, along with half a dozen other reporters, headed uptown. We arrived just in time to see Pete hit the first pitch he saw in the first inning for a single that brought him within one hit of Cobb's record.

What had happened was this: The Cubs' scheduled starter was Steve Trout, a left-hander whose father, Paul Trout, had pitched for the Tigers during my boyhood days in Detroit and was known as Dizzy. Well, the apple hadn't fallen very far from the tree because Steve Trout had gone for a bike ride the previous night and had fallen off his bike and injured his arm and shoulder. So the Cubs started Reggie Patterson, a right-hander, and Pete, without a second thought, put himself in the lineup.

In the fifth inning, Pete hit another single to tie the record and there it was, one more hit for Pete, one less celebration in Cincinnati. Wrigley Field was far from full that day--if Cubs fans had known Pete was going to play, it surely would have been--but the fans who were there stood and cheered for Pete as if he was one of their own, delaying the game for several minutes.

Then things got interesting. Late in the afternoon, with the score tied, it started to rain and there was a two-hour delay. And when the game finally resumed, with dark clouds casting deep black shadows all over the park, Pete came to the plate in the ninth inning as Lee Smith came in from the bullpen. Smith, who was one of the top relievers of his time, was 6-5 and while he was listed at 220 pounds, you could see that he weighed at least 30 or 40 pounds more than that. And he threw the meanest, nastiest inside fastballs you ever saw.
By now, you could imagine Marge Schott in Cincinnati, frantic at the thought of Pete breaking the record in Chicago--or, worse, breaking a finger or a rib and being through for the season--yelling at her television set, "Take yourself out of the game!"

But Pete went to the plate, a 44-year-old man standing in against one of the hardest throwers in the game as the ballpark grew ever darker. Smith got two quick strikes on Pete and then he took a little bit off his fastball and Pete, who was expecting another fastball, struck out. A few minutes later the game was called due to darkness. Because it had no bearing on the pennant race, it was never finished and went into the record books as a tie.
It took a few days for me to process the day's events, but this is what I finally realized. It wasn't Cobb's record that was important to Pete at that moment. It wasn't breaking it in front of the fans at home. It wasn't the paydays the Reds would miss. It wasn't the carefully crafted buildup to breaking the record on a lazy weeknight when it would dominate the sports news cycle instead of the opening Sunday of the NFL season. It was the baseball game that was being played, a tie baseball game he was trying to help his team win.

Pete's strikeout, it seemed to me, a strikeout in an at-bat he shouldn't have taken, in a game he shouldn't have played in--a game that had neither a winner nor a loser--may have been the closest thing to a truly noble act I ever witnessed on a ball field.

Pete was a flawed man. He did some things that shamed himself and the game he loves, and he has paid a heavy price for that. If you look at much of what baseball has been through in recent years, in fact, that may be just one more reason why he was the spirit of the game.

Some will say Pete's sins were of such magnitude that they must never forgiven, and I respect that. But I think those sins, and the decades of banishment he has spent atoning for them, should be weighed against his accomplishments.

Pete did his time, and that should be enough.

Ron Rapoport covered the Dodgers and Angels for the Los Angeles Times in the '70s, and wrote a sports column for the Daily News in the '80s and '90s. He was also a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times for 20 years.

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