Pete Rose is certainly not without his share of controversy owing to a lifetime ban from baseball due to betting on games in which he was involved as player/manager for the Cincinnati Reds. The name of the next-to-last chapter in his new book is “I Blew It, I Know That”. The book is a marvelous read for fans of baseball in particular, and for students of the triumphs and frailties of life in general.
At the 5:00 minute mark of his retirement speech this weekend, Chase Utley remarked how Phillies fans, over the past two years, have repeatedly thanked him for the 2008 World Series victory. And he remarks that he is thankful to the fans, who helped elevate him toward his lofty goals. Chase was a hard-nosed player in the mold of Pete Rose.
Pete idolized his father, who was an accomplished amateur athlete. He cites several of the fathers in his neighborhood who were role models for their sons. One of those sons was Eddie Brinkman, known as The Babe Ruth of Cincinnati, who would go on to be the star player on Pete’s baseball team in high school (the same team that produced the Phillies’ Art Mahaffey a few years earlier). It was Brinkman who attracted the scouts’ attention as a potential superstar, not Pete Rose.
Rose describes his father as loving but stern. “So if I went 4-for-6 in a game and on the way home he ignored the four hits and wanted to talk about what I’d done the other two times, I might not have liked it, but I understood.” One thing Pete’s dad didn’t tolerate was mental errors. He knew that Pete would have to work harder than most of his peers due to being undersized. While that was something beyond his control, being focused at all times for game preparation and during the games was well within his control. That awareness, intensity, and what some might call baseball IQ became Rose’s signature.
Another adult that Pete idolized was his mother’s brother, Uncle Buddy Bloebaum. Rose considers him to have been the best baseball player in the family, but just as his uncle was about to embark on a career the Great Depression hit. Uncle Buddy was a switch hitter, which Rose emulated, and it was Bloebaum – a scout for the Reds – who signed Pete to his first contract with the ballclub.
As a young player, Pete largely got the cold shoulder from veterans on the major league club, who considered him to be a brash hot dog as he slid head first into bases and ran out walks to first base (isn’t running out a walk an oxymoron?). But two of the team’s stars in the early ’60s, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, respected Pete’s grit and took him under their wing. One of the more revealing passages in the book is that Pete was actually called into the Reds’ front office and told that he was hanging around with black players too much. In no uncertain terms, Pete ignored the advice.
Cleaning out my closet earlier this week in preparation for a move, I came across some Phillies memorabilia. One of the items was a monograph on Phillies baseball in the 29th century.
Rose of course had an illustrious career in Cincinnati, but as the monograph notes the contract that he signed in 1978 with the Phillies would have a major impact on that club’s future.
Rose writes: “When I joined the Phillies for the ’79 season, Mike Schmidt was the best player in the game three or four days a week. He could be more than that, and when he watched me play over the course of a season, Mike became the best player in the game seven days a week I spurred him on. I made him understand that there are other ways to win than home runs. You can lead with your defense You can lead with your base-running. You can lead with your leadership … I’d promised the organization if they signed me, we would make that last step and go to the World Series, and I delivered.”
Pete’s role in that Series is celebrated in a special supplement of the Philadelphia Inquirer that I kept, highlighting our version of the immaculate reception.
In his book Rose adds: “For all the talent we had on that team, for all the great chemistry and competitiveness you felt every time you walked in that clubhouse, I still feel to this day that the reason we won it all was because our manager, Dallas Green, was the perfect fit for our club … He was vocal and no nonsense; he had rules and he wanted you to abide by the rules. If you didn’t, he penalized you.”
Many baseball lifers have referred to “playing the game the right way”, but as in many other avenues of life the right way is a product of the cultural milieu. Rose recognizes that expectations of players playing the right way is reflected in fans’ attitudes as well. “If you were on their side, all that extra stuff you did helped their team win, then they loved you. If you were on the other team, they probably loved to boo you. Before I went to Philadelphia, the fans hated me. Oh, did they love to boo me in my years with the Cincinnati Reds! But they never once booed me when I was there playing for the Phillies.”
I’ll leave you with a story Pete shared about his manager in Cincy, Dave Bristol. “The job of a manager is above all to understand each and every one of his players and to know how to reach them. My manager later on, the great Sparky Anderson, liked to talk about how there are three – and only three – ways to reach a guy: You kick him in the ass, you leave him alone, or you give him a pat on the back. The trick was knowing which kind of guy a given player was. That same month, July 1967, we were in a funk at the plate as a team, and Dave decided it was time to impose a fine on anyone who came up with a runner on third base and no outs or one out, and did not bring the runner home. Guess who earned the first fine from the new rule? Yours truly, that’s who. I had four hits, including three extra-base hits, and we cruised to a 6-2 win over the Pirates, but in the seventh I came up with runners on the corners and one out, and bounced out. After the game I walked right in to see Dave in his office and handed him twenty-five bucks in cash and a trading stamp catalog I’d won for being on a radio show. Dave said he wanted the full fifty bucks and wouldn’t accept the catalog. ‘Maybe he needs it for his wardrobe,’ I told reporters that night. But I made clear that I thought it was a good rule, and I was happy to pay the fine.”
During his long and storied career, Pete Rose played in 1,972 games in which his team won. As he notes, that, by a long shot, is the most ever by any player. At the current moment, with our beloved Phillies in freefall (from 3.5 games in 1st place on May 29 to 6.5 games back in less than a month), Rose’s book is a delightful reminder of what it takes to win.