Pete Rose, the Ballplayer

Mention the name “Pete Rose” these days and expect to be launched into a discussion (more likely a heated debate) that hurtles deep into the territory of boorish behavior, gambling, bookies, betting slips, John Dowd, Bart Giamatti, Bud Selig, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Hall of Fame’s eligibility requirements, the Hall of Fame’s mission and purpose, and the very nature of good and evil in the universe itself.

And that’s just in the first five minutes.

While all that’s jolly good fun, and should continue along its merry way, there’s something else that crucially needs to be said, loudly and clearly, at regular intervals: FORGET ALL THAT for just a moment. The full consideration of Pete Rose must never lose touch with the simple foundational issue of Pete Rose the Ballplayer.

He was a ballplayer, you know. Inevitably, with each passing year fewer fans remember Pete Rose the Ballplayer. Or if they do, their image of Rose between the white lines is limited to one of Rose The Hit Record Junkie, well past forty, no longer a star or even a particularly good player, penciling himself into the lineup ahead of better options, a self-aggrandizing has-been. If that’s the only image, or the primary image, a fan has of Pete Rose the Ballplayer, then that fan is sadly image-impoverished.

Because Pete Rose the Ballplayer was so very, very much more than that, so very, very much better than that.

I completely understand that Pete Rose has turned out to be an insufferable punk of a human being. I totally supported Commissioner Giamatti’s decision to ban Rose from MLB, and I totally support Commissioner Selig’s decision to maintain that ban, and I’m completely comfortable with the Hall of Fame’s consequent decision to keep him off their ballot.

But, as I said, let’s FORGET ALL THAT for just a moment. Let’s allow ourselves to remember just what kind of a ballplayer Pete Rose was.

Pete Rose was the kind of ballplayer who made you happy, grateful, to be a baseball fan. He was a wonderful, terrific, gloriously tremendous baseball player. He combined limited athletic gifts (though descriptions of him as being without any “tools” could be way overdone) with alert intelligence and electric, infectious intensity, to create a boisterously efficient package that ate, slept, breathed, and lived baseball. Rose burned to win, and those of us watching burned with him.

I was never a Cincinnati Reds’ fan. I’ve always been a diehard San Francisco Giants’ fan, and so from 1970 onward, the Reds almost constantly stood between my team and any championship hopes. I rooted intensely against the Cincinnati Reds. I wanted Rose and his team to lose.

But I still loved to see Rose play. His every at-bat was a treat to watch. His every play in the field (at any one of the five defensive positions he handled as a regular) was a joy to behold. And watching him tear around the basepaths was the most fun of all.

And Rose was, most definitely, far more than just an exciting player to watch. He produced exceptional results, with relentless consistency, and with astonishing durability and longevity. He contributed to wins as few players ever have, accumulating 547 Win Shares over his career. That total is currently 14th on the all-time list, and places him ahead of such greats as Rickey Henderson, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, and Lou Gehrig. And it wasn’t simply a function of longevity: Rose was among the top five National Leaguers in Win Shares in 1968, 1969, 1972, 1973, 1975, and 1976. He wasn’t simply a good player for a very long time (though he was that), it’s also the case that in his best years, Rose was a great player.

In case you never had the pleasure of watching Pete Rose the Ballplayer, here’s what you missed:

- He wasn’t tall (5’11”), but he was big, with thick, robustly muscled forearms, biceps, torso, and thighs. This made him stand out in an era in which weight training was eschewed, and most ballplayers were lithe and quite lean.

- He played with an enthusiasm – alert, active, ebullient, buoyant – that this MLB observer of 40 years has seen in precious few others. Rose loved to play baseball; his joy in the enterprise was obvious. (I always got a kick out of the way, once time out was called, he would bounce the baseball, almost like dribbling a basketball, on artificial turf. He was having fun.) As a rookie, Rose was given the nickname “Charlie Hustle” (apparently by Mickey Mantle) with some derision, but he wore it with pride, and to the absolute end of his career, if Rose failed, it was never, ever through lack of conditioning, preparation, or full-on effort.

- He was a contact hitter, but not a slap hitter. Rose was very strong, and hit the ball hard, smoking line drives to all fields from both sides of the plate, producing lots of doubles and triples, and especially in his mid-to-late 20s, more than a few home runs.

- His strike zone judgment was very good, and got better as he aged. Even very late in his career, when Rose was focused on achieving the all-time hit record, he was eager to get on base by any means necessary, and he was very good at drawing lots of walks.

- He demonstrated little grace or elegance on defense, but thanks to an astounding work ethic and innate qualities of quickness, balance, and soft hands, he made himself a good fielder at every position his team asked him to play. His arm was never strong; his throws were kind of awkwardly short-armed, but they were quickly released and accurate. Most impressively, he attacked batted balls with the same eagerness he attacked pitched balls: Rose wanted the ball to be hit to him. He committed himself to defense with every bit of the energy he committed to offense. Rose loved to play baseball in both halves of every inning.

- He ran the bases with ferocious abandon. Rose’s speed was never more than pretty good, but his aggressiveness on the bases was second to none. He wasn’t always the smartest baserunner – he ran himself into outs more than he should have – but his alertness and confidence tested defenses constantly. If an extra base could possibly be taken, Rose would take it, every time.

Indeed it was Rose’s style of baserunning that resulted in the most controversial play of his career: his collision with Cleveland Indians’ catcher Ray Fosse as Rose scored the winning run of the 1970 All-Star Game. Rose’s critics maintain his flying block into Fosse was a dirty play.

I strongly disagree. I watched the play on television as it occurred, and didn’t consider it to be anything other than hard and clean, and nothing I’ve encountered since has provided any reason to change that assessment. Fielders hold no right to set up to receive a throw directly in front of a base with impunity. Any catcher who positions himself as Fosse did – standing between home plate and the onrushing runner – has chosen to expose himself to potential collision. A catcher who attempts to block the plate is liable to get hit; this has been an element of clean, hard baseball since its very early days.

Rose made that baserunning play in the exact same manner as two of his contemporaries would have, two contemporaries who were widely regarded as among the most aggressive baserunners of their (or any) era: Frank Robinson and Hal McRae. Significantly, the young Rose was a teammate of Robinson’s, and the young McRae was a teammate of Rose’s. The Robinson-Rose-McRae chain of influence is plainly clear.

The Fosse play, as well as a play in the 1973 National League Championship Series in which Rose bowled over New York Mets’ shortstop Bud Harrelson in an attempt to break up a double play, fueled criticism of Rose in some quarters. Following 1973, he was regularly booed for several years, not just in Shea Stadium, but by a significant segment of fans in many National League parks. These fans apparently considered Rose a “dirty” player. I always found that perspective to be utterly ridiculous. Rose played ball exactly as it should be played, as fans generally wish more players would play. To boo Pete Rose was to boo baseball’s shining symbol of relentless hustle, peerless dedication, and vigorous commitment to victory. One might as well cheer lassitude, corner-cutting, and apathy.

The fans of Rose’s own teams never booed him, that’s for certain. He was always one of their favorites. Thus the booing may be seen as more of a sign of perplexed respect of Rose’s skill and accomplishment – in other words, fear – than a rational response to his hard-nosed mode of action. At any rate, by the last several years of Rose’s career, the booing had largely disappeared.

It’s certainly true that any full assessment of Pete Rose must necessarily incorporate his actions while employed as a manager, obviously regarding the betting-on-Reds’-games scandal, and Rose’s continuing response to it. My reading of all that leads directly to the unambiguous conclusion that Pete Rose is a pathetically dismal man.

That much is deeply important in understanding the entire story of Pete Rose. But equally so is a full appreciation of just what kind of a baseball player he was. Pete Rose was a phenomenally wonderful ballplayer.

So as we soberly consider the grim subjects of crime and punishment and atonement and mercy, let’s never allow ourselves to lose these images …

Pete Rose, in his comically deep crouch, thick arms angling the bat over his shoulder, happy, eager to have the pitch come his way.

Pete Rose, flashing the quick strong stroke, making perfect loud contact, whistling yet another liner, the ball briskly skipping along the outfield turf.

Pete Rose, elbows churning, knees pumping, turning first, steaming into second, more than ready, eager, to take third …

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