Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Do the Right Thing—Let Rose In

I woke up today and realized that I missed Pete Rose’s birthday. It was a month ago today, April 14.

I always remembered Rose’s birthday (4/14/41) because it was printed on the back of his baseball card many years ago—as birthdates always were and are—and for some goshdarn reason it stuck in my head. (I also remembered Frank Howard’s—8/8/36—but not the way I remembered Pete’s.)

Pete is 67 now. That’s how old my father was when he died. So that sober thought made me think how sad and pointless it is that Rose isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

Here the guy is, heading toward 70, the equivalent of a rock ‘n’ roll geezer act, making what he can off his name and fame, with 4,256 major league hits to his credit—and the tightasses at the Hall of Fame refuse to let him in.

Many of us know the truth: That Pete is, and always was, a little kid stuffed into a baseball uniform. He probably shouldn’t have gotten married or had kids or tried to do anything responsible—because kids don’t have the maturity to do things like that successfully or without making major mistakes and screwing up.

Lots of screw-up guys get entangled in hardcore gambling. Women, too. It happens. And looking back, should we be surprised that Pete, an overgrown kid paid well for playing baseball and doing Aqua-Velva ads, was one of them?

Yet the visual, anecdotal, and statistical facts don’t lie: Rose was a great baseball player. Ten seasons of 200+ hits, 17 times an All-Star, 1963 Rookie of the Year, 1973 National League MVP, 6 World Series, the 44-game hitting streak, plus 24 seasons of unallayed hustle and intensity, the sincerity of which no one—not even his sternest critics—has ever questioned.

Rose gave us big video moments—the Ray Fosse 1970 All-Star Game collision (left), the scrap with the Mets’ Bud Harrelson in the 1973 NLCS, the world championships with the Big Red Machine, the amazing foul pop-up catch in the 1980 World Series for the Phillies. And anyone who ever saw him play—I recall for myself one time in the late ’70s at Wrigley Field—would be crazy to venture that the guy wasn’t giving his all every single moment on the field.

Rose was born, and driven, to play baseball. If quantity of giving is a measure of anything, then he is truly the Hit King. He amassed his incredible hit total combining a certain skill with indomitable will.

4,256 hits. Achieved without steroids. The nearest active player to him (presuming Bonds is finished) is—don’t snicker—41-year-old Omar Vizquel, who somehow has, without many people noticing, totaled 2,602 career hits as of this writing. (Way to go, Omar! Who knew??)

The only active player with even a remote chance to approach the record is Alex Rodriguez, currently with 2,276 hits and soon to turn 33. If ARod plays 10 more years and averages 200 hits per year, he can pass Rose by. Anyone want to wager on that happening? (Besides Pete, I mean.)

And by the way, Pete’s record as a manager was even okay: 412-373 for a .525 winning percentage. That’s higher than Terry Francona (.512). Or Jim Leyland (.495). It’s exactly the same as Dusty Baker. Heck, even Casey Stengel only had a .508 lifetime winning percentage.

So what I think is that the baseball powers-that-be oughta lighten up on a little kid named Pete Rose, one of the most compelling baseball players and baseball-playing personalities of all time, who unfortunately had to face grown-up things, bungled the job, ended up doing time and now trolls the outcast waters of the sports memorabilia circuit.

It’s time to recognize what Rose did when he was a player in good standing. It’s time to forgive. And to honor.

Do it now. Before he dies of a sudden heart attack. Before that critical moment passes when the man cannot know how much he was appreciated for the contributions he made ON THE FIELD.

He was great. I know it. And you know it, too. Let him in.

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