Pete Rose is one of baseball’s greatest players, and one of the game’s most tragic. Not blessed with great natural athleticism, he relied on hard work, determination and grit to carry himself to the major leagues. Once there, he became the game’s all-time hit king and was the soul of the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine that won two World Series in the 1970s.
But the iron will that saw to his success also proved to be his undoing, turning him into an arrogant, stubborn and self-obsessed jerk who said and did anything to advance himself. He lied, he cheated, and, in the end, his competitiveness teamed with his arrogance to bring him to bet on baseball games when he was the Reds’ manager. This is a huge transgression, one of baseball’s absolute no-nos, and it caused his banishment from the game in 1989.
Rose still has his fans, though, and they had hoped baseball would use the 86th Major League All Star Game’s return to Cincinnati on Tuesday, July 14 to at least acknowledge that he exists, if not fully allow him back in the game. Maybe even say something nice about him.
But the chances of that happening have been mostly dashed by a recent ESPN investigation that uncovered compelling evidence that Rose not only bet on baseball as the Reds’ manager but, years earlier, gambled as a player. This will no doubt earn Rose an even greater shunning, so that rather than being one of baseball’s crown princes, Pete Rose is the game’s tragic fool.
It was this tragic figure I encountered in Cooperstown, NY in 2001 when I attended the induction ceremonies for the Hall of Fame — a place and roster which, because of his exile, Rose will never enter unless he buys a ticket. Rose was in a baseball memorabilia shop on the town’s main drag that weekend, signing autographs in a second floor storage room that had been cleared out for the occasion.
A small crowd gathered at the top of the stairs, looking into the dark and windowless room, the only light coming from a couple of track lights on the ceiling pointing at Rose. He sat at a rickety folding table holding a pen, alone except for a woman next to him with a tackle box, collecting the money he was charging for his autograph. Nobody went in, nor did he acknowledge any of us. He just fidgeted and shifted in his seat, looked blankly at a wall and ignored the crowd staring at him like a sideshow freak.
I can’t remember how much the autographs cost exactly, but it was $10 or $20 more than I wanted to pay, so I left. Back outside and a few stores down was Ed Kranepool, sitting in front of another memorabilia store signing autographs for anyone who wanted one for absolutely nothing. Kranepool was the catcher for the New York Mets in the 1960s and 1970s and a fan favorite. Like Rose, he didn’t have a lot of natural talent but managed to make an all star team and win a World Series with the 1969 Miracle Mets through hard work of his own. Still, despite the fact he wasn’t good enough to garner even a single vote in his one year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, the crowd that formed around him spilled off the curb and into the street.
Kranepool laughed, shook hands, and told stories about his old Mets days. He smiled and listened to fans share their cherished memory of the first baseball game they ever saw at Shea Stadium, when he hit a three-run home run in the seventh against the Cubs.
Kranepool treated fans like long lost teammates, thanked them for rooting for the Mets, and then signed whatever the next person handed him — his Topps card, a jersey, a gum wrapper, a napkin smeared with ice cream. He signed for hours on that sidewalk, winning new friends and new fans while Pete Rose, who had more hits than anyone in the history of baseball, sat in a dark room, alone but for a person who collected money that few wanted to pay, and stared at a wall.