I’m glad I was an adult, a very jaded adult, when the scandal broke about Pete Rose and his gambling on baseball. It was demoralizing enough as it was, but it would have hit me even harder when I was younger. Pete Rose was my hero.
I wasn’t a fanatical baseball fan, but I knew about Pete Rose. I remember my mother telling me about this rookie that was causing all kinds of excitement. I must have been nine or ten years old. She’d show me stories from the The Cincinnati Post-Times Star sports page about Rose, and I became a fan and a follower of his career.
I never had a romanticized view of Pete Rose. He was a hometown boy, and there was always talk my dad repeated from a friend who knew somebody who knew somebody else who lived in Rose’s neighborhood, or knew Rose’s mechanic, or whatever. I wasn’t interested in his personal life. I loved the way Rose played baseball.
It was easy to remember Pete Rose’s uniform number and easy to remember his birthday: both were 14, his birthday in MY month of April. That’s about as close as I got to retaining any statistics about Rose. What I remembered, what I still remember, were the things that made him so great to watch: his love of the game, his “hustle” on the field, his apparent optimism and belief in himself. I always said I kept writing because of lessons I learned watching Pete Rose play.
I learned that you don’t lose anything by continuing to try. I learned that determination can make up for a lack of talent. Not that I thought I lacked talent; but the constant rejection of writing can wear you down no matter how much faith you have in yourself. Nothing wore Rose down, and I took heart in that.
I learned the importance of passion for whatever you’re doing. I learned that you can live as if winning is everything; but if you don’t know how to pick yourself up out of the dirt and continue on after a loss, the triumphs don’t count for as much. I learned that you don’t have to regard opposition as “the enemy.” I saw this best during the 1975 World Series when the Reds played Boston. A true Big Red Machine fanatic, I raged against the Red Sox and cursed the announcers if they bestowed what I interpreted to be excessive praise on “the enemy” or condemn OUR team with undue criticism.
Then I’d see Pete Rose out there on the base paths, laughing and talking with the enemy players, enjoying everything about the experience. I’d read about his friendship with members of the Red Sox team and think about the limitations of seeing only “them” vs. “us.”
During that same series, in that agonizing sixth game that see-sawed all night, with Boston taking it on Fisk’s home run, Pete Rose had said something to someone on the Red Sox team about how great it was to be playing in a game like that. It was torture for those of us watching at home, but Pete Rose was having the time of his life. That made a big impression on me. (Oh, and here’s a message for Ken Burns and Red Sox fans and everyone on the east coast or anyone else who’s into revisionist history: The REDS won that series.)
Things were never the same between me and the Reds when Rose went to Philadelphia. I was happy for his success, but the magic was gone. It returned for awhile in the mid-80s when Rose returned to Cincinnati as a player/coach, and in time for his chase of Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record. There was a Pete Rose poetry contest co-sponsored by Spitball literary magazine and The Enquirer. I entered and was one of the five winners for best poem; the day after Rose’s emotional triumph of hitting 4,192, my poem and my picture appeared in the commemorative edition of The Enquirer. It was a dream come true.
Then, within years, it all fell apart. I knew Rose was a gambler. My grandfather, a harness horse driver, told us how he’d see Rose at the Latonia racetrack during the summer meet, and that Rose had bet on him on various occasions. Still, I couldn’t believe it was all as bad as National League Baseball was making out. And there were Rose’s denials. I really did believe, whatever all his other faults, Rose wouldn’t lie about the situation. He did. And worse. The story has become only more disappointing and disillusioning over time.
Still, I wish Pete Rose a very happy birthday. Whatever his missteps and deceptions over the years, he was a fantastic ballplayer. And truth be told, I’m still benefiting from the lessons I learned watching him play all those many baseball seasons ago.