No. 41: Pete Rose
The question is this: Can any boy with moderate athletic ability simply will himself into becoming a great baseball player? I’ve thought about this a lot. When I was a kid, I wanted to play Major League Baseball. Every kid I knew wanted that. I was small and not obviously talented (or even subtly talented). But I did make our league All-Star team as an 11-year-old because I fielded well and had something resembling bat control, and we weren’t going out of town on vacation the day of the All-Star game like many of the other families were.
I thought I wanted baseball success badly. I would bounce balls off a brick wall and field grounders until the baseballs had been chewed up to the yarn. I would beg my Dad or friends to pitch to me every day. I would spend hours practicing the exchange from glove to hand for the double play — for some reason I was convinced that this was to be a crucial skill for me. Even now, I suspect, I can make that lightning fast exchange.
And then, one day, it just occurred to me: I wasn’t going to be a Major League Baseball player. Who was I kidding? If I wasn’t the best player on my little league team, that meant I wasn’t close to the best player in the league. If I wasn’t close to the best player in the South Euclid Little League (All-Star Game notwithstanding), then I probably wasn’t one of the thousand best players in Cleveland. And the math grew starker from there. I don’t recall my baseball dreams ending in one bold moment but instead it was a gradual realization.
What is childhood but a gradual realization?
Anyway, I briefly had other dreams — of becoming a pro tennis player, of being a famous lawyer, of living in a van with three friends and a dog and solving mysteries. But looking back, I wonder: What if I had NOT given up on baseball? What if the whole math conundrum had not discouraged me in the slightest? What if I had wanted it 200% more than I did? What if I had lacked all self awareness, if I would not listen to reason, if I had a father who pushed me maniacally, if I had worked at baseball 10 hours a day instead of two or three? What if I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player so badly that nothing else filled my mind, nothing else even seemed possible?
Could I have been Pete Rose? Could you?
* * *
The five tools of baseball are hitting, hitting with power, speed, fielding and arm. Of these, Pete Rose had only one. He could flat hit a baseball. His father, Big Pete, made sure of that. Harry Rose was a legendary athlete on the West Side of Cincinnati, a tough-as-nails semi-professional football player into his 40s, and he expected his son to be a ballplayer. This was not optional. When Lil’ Pete was 8, Harry went up to his Little League coach and struck a deal: The coach would let Lil’ Pete switch hit. In exchange, Lil’ Pete would never miss a game and would play his little guts out. In a way, Harry Rose’s deal with that coach lasted a lifetime.
Lil’ Pete Rose wasn’t fast. He wasn’t athletically graceful. He threw awkwardly. He was uncommonly strong and probably could have hit with power — he hit double digit home runs every year from 1965-1971 — but he developed a swing built for batting average instead. Batting average was water to Pete Rose. He would drink eight glasses of his batting average every single day. If you offered to give Pete Rose five extra batting average points in exchange for his pinkie toes, Pete would have been an eight-toed man.
No one outside of the Rose clan saw Pete Rose as a prospect. Pete and his father and his fathers’ friends begged the hometown Cincinnati Reds to sign him. The Reds showed almost no interest at all in doing so. It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems likely that the Reds only signed Rose so that all these people would stop bugging them about it. They shipped him off to Class D Geneva where, I suspect, they expected his baseball career to die a quiet death.
But he played pretty well. The next year, they shipped him off to Class D Tampa, and the kid hit .330 with 30 freaking triples. THIRTY! He stole 30 bases too, and this guy couldn’t run. So, what the hell, they sent him to Class A Macon, and he hit .330 again. Then they brought him to spring training and that kid wouldn’t stop running and cracking line drives and diving for every moving ball — he was possessed.
“Look at Charlie Hustle over there,” Whitey Ford supposedly said to Mickey Mantle after Rose tried to catch a Mantle homer that sailed 20 feet over the right field fence.* Most of the other players on the Reds resented the hell out of the kid. Don Blasingame was the Reds second baseman, and he was a good one, and he had paid his dues. This Pete Rose kid had no business trying to take Don Blasingame’s job, and they made sure he knew that. They made the kids’ life as miserable as they could, and they did make him miserable. He kept on swinging and kept on hustling anyway.
*I’d always heard it was Mantle who gave Rose the nickname after running to first base on a walk — that’s certainly how Rose has always told it. But according to this apparently well researched version of Today I Found Out, it was actually Ford who came up with the nickname. And, to be honest, that’s a better story.
After a while, some of the black players on the team — particularly Frank Robinson — saw in Rose a kindred spirit, someone who was treated as an outsider, but kept on going relentlessly. They took him in. The others now had a new reason to attack Rose — this as the civil rights movement exploded around America. Rose wasn’t much interested in all that. He idolized Robinson. Frank Robinson was a BALLPLAYER.
Becoming a ballplayer was the only ambition that ever registered with Pete Rose. He lived a life without a second option. Pete Rose was not unaware of his various athletic shortcomings — indeed, he spent countless hours improving on those — but he seemed unaware that such shortcomings could prevent him from becoming a star baseball player. He never seemed to have a moment of self-doubt. Hey, he could make up for his lack of speed with aggressiveness and decisiveness; few have stretched more singles into doubles and doubles into triples by simply not stopping. He could make up for his lack of natural grace in the field by sacrificing his body and rarely making a mental mistake. He couldn’t throw well, but he could throw well enough. Anyway, if he hit .300 and smacked 200 hits every year, nobody would worry about the other stuff.
And he was right. From 1968 to 1976 — years when pitching dominated the National League — Pete Rose hit .319/395/.444, (a 136 OPS+), scored 110 runs a year, hit 35 or 40 doubles a year, and he regularly played right field, left field and third base while occasionally playing a little second base, first base and center field. He befriended Joe Morgan — Morgan would always say that Rose was a major factor in his Hall of Fame success — and he was exceedingly kind to young players, and he was the vocal leader of the Big Red Machine. He was basically the Derek Jeter of his time, and like Jeter he was overpraised by many and uniquely despised by many others. He made himself into baseball’s biggest thing.
Such hunger, though, is a mixed blessing. You don’t have to be a psychologist to connect Rose’s need for action on the field to his need for action off the field. You don’t have to follow too many dots to get from the man who crashed into Ray Fosse to win an All-Star Game to the man who went on a 44-game hitting streak while his personal life was falling apart to the man who bet tens of thousands of dollars on his own team when he was the manager. He was really good at baseball. He wasn’t that good at life.
This Top 100 is crowded with extraordinary athletes and golden-armed pitchers, men who understood at a very young age that they had been blessed with a gift. Rose represents another category, a group of players who simply could not imagine a life where they were NOT baseball legends.
Could you or I have become Pete Rose? Well, it’s not so simple. Rose certainly had gifts — hand-eye coordination, a quick mind, an almost indestructible body. There have been people who have worked as hard at baseball as Pete Rose, and perhaps even harder, who never even became Major Leaguers. But I wonder if there has ever been anyone who was quite as convinced as Pete Rose. That’s the word. Convinced. And that’s a sort of talent too.