If anyone told you on the day Peter Edward Rose took his first time at bat in the big leagues that he would one day be the greatest hitter of the baseball in all the ages of the game, Ty Cobb would have led the laughter. Babe Ruth would have called him "Keed" and asked him if he wanted an autograph. When Rose said he wanted to be a ballplayer, they would have asked him what else he wanted for Christmas.
He was too little, too slow, too happy, too eager. I mean, what did he think this was--a game? He was a banjo hitter who ran everything out--even bases on balls. The league figured he was just another holler guy. Inspirational if not effective. "Who's that Charlie Hustle?" snickered Mickey Mantle, not entirely complimentarily. Very cute, the league thought. Refreshing. The eternal kid. But this was a man's game. This was a game where you frowned a lot. You told people, "Gid outta here!" You never figured it was to enjoy. It was just another day at the lathe.
Pete Rose would find out. Pretty soon he wouldn't be running out bases on balls, he wouldn't even be running out high pop-ups. He would learn to complain, loaf, take a day off, second-guess the manager. In short, become a big-leaguer.
That was 23 years ago. That was 4,256 hits ago, 1,536 walks. That was 14,053 at-bats, 3,562 games ago. And Pete Rose still approaches a game as if it were his first ride on a merry-go-round, as if he were seeing the game through a hole in the fence.
It never got to be a job with Pete. It was a combination pony ride and trip to the zoo. Pete played the game the way kids in empty lots play it, for the pure joy of it, and he became the greatest of all time without making an enemy in the world.
Pete symbolized the game for a whole generation of fans. He was generous with his time and his talents. He was as available for the press conference as he was for the batting cage. He played every position he was asked. He moved off second base to make room for Joe Morgan. He moved off left field to make room for George Foster. He moved off third base because Mike Schmidt was there.
Pete would have ushered to stay in the game. Pete was as good for the game as peanuts and Cracker Jack. He was a throwback, a 1910 ballplayer in a space age, a superstar with a rookie's outlook. Pete was not only the bleachers' favorite ballplayer, he was also the networks'.
But if not many people ever thought he would become a 4,000-hit player, even fewer thought he could become a pennant-wining major league manager. The dugout is no place for the little boy's outlook. The dugout is the place for the sarcastic, the sour. You've got to be part-John McGraw, part-German general and part-mule train driver. A large dose of cynicism couldn't hurt.
Pete Rose seemed as spectacularly unsuited to be Connie Mack as he was to be Ty Cobb.
Pete, as usual, ignored the pessimists. Pete is always sure there's a pony underneath there somewhere.
The cynics thought the Cincinnati Reds didn't need a mentor, they needed a drawing card. Pete could sell tickets, somebody else could run the ball club.
But Pete doesn't know how to be a figurehead. Pete runs everything out--even managing. Anyway, it was baseball, wasn't it? And who loved that more than Pete Rose? Who knew more about getting into playoffs (eight) and World Series (six)? Who knew more about Hustle than Charlie himself?
It's considered axiomatic in baseball that superstars never make super managers. The greatest have failed--Cobb, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson. Ruth never even got the chance.
You can't manage by saying, "Go on up there and hit a three-run homer." Or, "Go out there and get 4,000 hits."
No one, it turned out, knew this better than Pete Rose.
"I don't expect my players to do what I've done," he says. "I mean, look, something like 14,000 players have played the game, right? And I got more hits than any of them. Only two of them got 4,000 hits. I don't expect them to be me. I don't expect them to run out bases on balls. I don't expect them to make head-first slides. I don't expect them to get 200 hits a year or even to get three hits every four times up.
"I have only two rules: Be on time and play hard."
Pete Rose was always an encyclopedia on Pete Rose. Pete was never a "You-saw-it, you-write-it" interview. Pete always knew exactly where he stood in the hierarchy of decimal points. Pete will remind you he was the only player in history to get 200 or more hits 10 times in his career, surpassing Cobb's nine.
"But when I started out, I didn't know who Ty Cobb was," he says. "I knew who Babe Ruth was because he saved baseball. You figure he came into a town on a weekend series and he saved that franchise there. I figured I owed something to a guy who saved baseball. I don't think players today appreciate what Babe Ruth did for all of us. I don't think players appreciate what Jackie Robinson did."
Will they appreciate what Pete Rose did? Or will he just become the Old Man, the crank in the dugout--Skip with the nasty tongue? Will managing finally knock the little boy out of Pete Rose?
"Losing is a lot harder on the manager than it is on the player," Manager Rose admits. "But it's still fun. It's still great to come to the ballpark every day, to see young players develop, to be in a pennant chase."
Who could ask for anything more? Anyway, what would baseball be without a Pete Rose? He may never overtake Connie Mack--or even Casey Stengel or Dick Williams. But nobody thought he would catch Ty Cobb, either. Pete may be boning up on exactly what he has to do, how many pennants and Series he has to win, already.