Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pete

Baseball has always been my favorite sport. As a kid it was the one I played the most in organized leagues. I spent countless hours throwing a tennis ball against the side of the house and concocting fantasy lineups and games. I collected baseball cards and pored over stats. I rooted for my favorites, the Cincinnati Reds, and got to make the trip south to attend a game or two each year.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of a big day for the Reds. On this day in 1985 Pete Rose broke the all-time record for career hits by collecting number 4192. The hard-nosed ballplayer was a key member of the Big Red Machine of the '70s, an era still first and foremost among many of the franchise's fans. That he was a hometown boy made it all the more special for Cincinnatians. His hustling brand of play--he would run to first when getting a base on balls rather than walk--continues to define what many Reds fans ask from the local nine. An average player who exhibits such qualities can become a fan favorite disproportionate to his actual skill or value to the team.

By the time I was following baseball with the kind of fervor that kids can have, Pete was playing in Philadelphia. Who knows whether he would have been my favorite if he'd still been with the Reds, although I expect I still would have gravitated to Johnny Bench, unquestionably my all-time favorite. Pete eventually returned to play and manage in Cincinnati, so while I took to him as a member of my team, I didn't have the same fan relationship with him that those who lived and died with the ball club in the '70s have.

That night of Pete's record-breaking hit I sat in front of the wooden console television with a tape recorder and microphone. I was going to record my own call of his record-breaking hit. I don't remember the assignment, but I recall that I was doing this to turn in for a junior high English class. I still have the tape, although I'm far too scared of listening to it to dare do so. I know that I would put the recorder on pause or stop it altogether in that down time when announcers demonstrate their skill, but hey, I was twelve. It was pretty exciting to see Ty Cobb's long-held record fall--of all the sports, baseball is the best connected to its history--and just two days later I went to a doubleheader at Riverfront Stadium and could see the circled and marked spot on the Astroturf where the historic hit landed.

Four years later the hit king who played like he would run through a brick wall collided with allegations that he had bet on baseball (and on his team) while managing the Reds. He was banned from baseball and consideration for the Hall of Fame, a place where he deserves to be based on his performance on the field. For years Pete denied gambling on baseball, but the stubborn aggressiveness that defined him as a player didn't suit him well in confronting the evidence.

Many Reds fans continue to hold a grudge against baseball's higher-ups for keeping Pete out of the game, particularly the Hall of Fame. The Reds themselves seem to go along begrudgingly with the ban, although there's a passive-aggressive tension at the ball park. The back of the scoreboard has a big picture of the bat and ball used for hit 4192. Apparently there's a rose garden in the spot where the historic hit fell. Pete's name may not be on display, but you can bet that most people know what these things represent.

Long ago I stopped caring whether Pete was reinstated or permitted to be voted on for enshrinement in Cooperstown. If anything, I sort of resent the stain he is on the organization on a national level. One of the best known players in the lengthy history of the franchise wagered on games in which he played a significant role. (Yes, I know he claims to have always bet on the Reds, but casting any doubts on the integrity of games' outcomes is the worst thing sports professional can do at their jobs.)

For me, over the years it's become more about how he refused to come clean about what he did--and then confessed when he had something to sell--than the offense itself. Granted, betting on baseball while managing a team is extremely slimy, and I fully support keeping him from having any role in the game. Should his accomplishments as a player put him in the Hall? Of course. Does it bother me that he's not in it? No. Plus, for those who still get bent out of shape about it, he's represented a decent amount in the museum.

An exception to the ban was made tonight, thus allowing Pete to be on the field and have the anniversary of his record-breaking hit officially acknowledged. As great of a player as he was, it pains me as a Reds fan to see the team go out of its way to recognize someone who has brought a lot of disrespect to them and the city. Yes, I realize that many still love him and view him as a victim, but such blind idolatry will pass in a generation.

While I don't think there's any need to lift the ban of him being involved in an official capacity or on his Hall eligibility, maybe that's what baseball needs to do. Just as long as he can't hold a job in the game, it could be best for everyone. The silly notion of Pete being wronged in all this will start to vanish, the Reds can trot him out for events honoring his and their past, the Baseball Writers of America can do their job and weigh the character issue when voting on his Hall worthiness, and fans like me can feel like we've finally moved on from this mess.

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