Pete Rose approached Don Zimmer in March and asked, "What's it look like?"
The Chicago Cubs' coach knew exactly what the Cincinnati Reds' player-manager meant. In fact, Zimmer knew it was the most serious professional question Rose possibly could ask an old, old friend.
Rose and Zimmer grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same Western Hills High in Cincinnati. As a boy, Rose idolized Zimmer, who was 10 years older and already a Brooklyn Dodger playing in the World Series.
They've been buddies much of their lives. Old-school throwbacks. Tight-lipped tough guys. Zimmer has a metal plate in his head from the beanings he endured rather than quit the game. Rose can say he lived for the game, but everybody in baseball knows Zimmer was willing to die for it.
"What am I going to say to him?" recalls Zimmer. " 'Pete, you can't hit anymore.' He's the greatest hitter ever lived. I hit .235. I'm gonna tell him to retire?"
Zimmer spits in the dust by the batting cage, looks away, thinks.
"But there had to be some doubt for him to ask me."
By April, Zimmer had made up his mind about the role of a true friend. He told Rose point-blank: "Pete, go to the general manager. Tell him you want to retire on May 15. There won't be an empty seat or a dry eye in the place."
Rose didn't take the advice. He's hitting .219 now. Though he has benched himself the last five weeks, Rose still says he might play again in 1987.
"You know, they booed Pete Rose in Cincinnati this season," says Zimmer, now with the New York Yankees. "It depresses the hell out of me just to stand here and think about it. I'm a baseball man, and that hurts me. Why would you ever wanna put yourself in that situation, if you'd done the things that man has done, that they'd boo you in your own hometown at the end?
"But you can't blame Pete. Not a bit. How many can walk away at the right time? I've been in the game 35 years. I can name 'em on one hand."
And Don Zimmer starts to name all the players he has ever personally known who retired before they had to quit, before they had the uniform torn off them. He names all the men who left with their dignity intact.
Zimmer can remember only three. "You know," he says, "it just seems to be gettin' worse."
The last taste of glory must be the sweetest. Or else the thought of lost glory must be the bitterest. Why else would men as great and rich as Rose, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson and Tom Seaver pay such a price in pride to play a game for such desperate odds?
Why else would Tony Perez, Graig Nettles, Tommy John, Hal McRae, Phil and Joe Niekro--all grandfathers, or old enough to be--still cling to the game even though they long ago reached the last symbolic milestones available to them?
When have so many of baseball's best men clutched at barren endings to their careers with such stubborn fierceness--playing for no other apparent reason than an inability to stop? Life may begin at 40, but baseball careers should end there, history suggests.
Perhaps thoughts of Jack Nicklaus or Bill Shoemaker--men who do not have to play a 162-game schedule--run in their heads. Maybe their decisions have been swayed by the way the public tolerated, then finally embraced Rose as he staggered after Ty Cobb for four mundane years (.271, .245, .286, .264).
Possibly they remember Gaylord Perry, Rod Carew, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Oliver, Willie Stargell and the way they hung on until they were shouldered out the clubhouse door by their own teams or shunned by every other club.
Or they may play for a simpler reason: greed. Oriole coach Frank Robinson rubs his fingers and thumb together in the universal gesture for cash: "They've gotten used to the really big money and they can't walk away from it."
This is not the standard-issue crop of over-35 players who seem to lose it every season. This year: George Foster, Gorman Thomas, Andre Thornton, Carlton Fisk, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Vida Blue, Ron Cey and a dozen others. That's just nature.
What's different now is the slew of future Hall of Famers who are past 40, some way past 40, who will not go away. They have their 3,000th hit, 500th homer or 300th win, yet they refuse to set a retirement date.
When nagged or booed, or begged to quit, they bristle as if the very question were an insult. The year after he broke Ty Cobb's hit record, Rose is reduced to saying: "What I don't like is people who know nothing about the game to try to diagram my life for me."
Cincinnati papers have even run polls with fans voting for Rose to quit. Carlton won his 300th three years ago. The last two years, he has been 9-20. He has taken his $1.1 million salary to three teams this summer and has even deigned to speak to the media.
Seaver won his 300th last season; now, he's 7-13. Yes, he's with the Red Sox now--a dreamy situation. But he was willing to hang on with the White Sox until midseason, hoping to land in an East Coast pennant race.