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Cincinnati Sticks By Its Tarnished Hometown Hero

June 25, 1989|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

CINCINNATI — Outside Jim & Jack's Riverside tavern--just down the hill from Pete Rose Field, the sandlot where many a dream-filled West Side kid has stretched a single to a double and then belly-flopped into third on a steal--hangs a banner that says what's on so many minds here this summer:

"Home of Pete Rose and Proud of It."

"We had the sign made when all this started and it's going to stick there no matter what happens," said Jack Houston, the Jack in Jim & Jack's. "He's from this neighborhood. He was brought up around here. People are concerned, but they're sticking by Pete."

To Cincinnati, especially the gritty, blue-collar West Side where he grew up, it's always been Pete. Not Rose or Pete Rose or Peter Edward Rose or even Charlie Hustle, the nickname he earned while gutting his way into the baseball record books with aggressive play and the most hits in major league history.

There have been other stars and other heroes here, but none quite so hard-driving, so dedicated to his craft, so down-to-earth, old-fashioned-working-class-Cincinnati as Rose. For more than a quarter of a century, ever since he broke in with the hometown Reds and won rookie of the year honors back in 1963, this snug and chummy Ohio River metropolis has had a love affair with Rose. It has winked at his personal foibles, which have been considerable, and venerated his athletic feats, which have been nothing short of stupendous.

But never has that loyalty been tested as it has in recent months. For Rose, now 48 years old and the Reds' manager, stands accused of committing the cardinal sins of the game that to many he epitomizes--betting on baseball and, even worse, betting on his own team. Under baseball's rules, he could be banned from the game for life if found guilty by Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti.

Like a Bean Ball

The allegations have smacked into this baseball-mad community with the force of a bean ball, and the turning point in the drama could come today when a local judge is scheduled to rule on a motion in a lawsuit filed by Rose, who denies charges that he placed baseball bets with bookies. Rose, claiming that Giamatti has a vendetta against him, wants the court to, in effect, take over the investigation.

But lawyers for Giamatti, a one-time president of Yale University, say there is considerable evidence against Rose and insist such a ruling would undermine the commissioner's longstanding authority to discipline players and coaches for misconduct. Those powers stem directly from the infamous 1919 Black Sox scandal in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banished from baseball after taking bribes from gamblers to throw the World Series to, ironically, the Reds.

The Rose scandal, like so much about Rose over the years, is the No. 1 topic of conversation in Cincinnati these days. The affair has dominated the front pages of both local newspapers. Several television and radio stations air the courtroom proceedings live and, even during regular programming, break in with frequent bulletin updates on the case.

To outsiders, such saturation coverage might seem overkill. But Rose is not just a sports legend here. To many, he has become the community's most sacred institution, a role model for athletes and a shining example of how determination can transform someone with only modest physical attributes into a superstar.

"Pete Rose and Cincinnati, he's like a king, he's an idol, a hero," said Fritz Wheeler, a 32-year-old truck driver who grew up in the same Riverdale neighborhood as Rose. " . . . When you were a kid you tried to play the game like Pete Rose. Everybody tried to hustle like Pete Rose."

Field Renamed

A ball field in Bold Face Park, where Rose as a child played Knot Hole ball, the local version of Little League, has been renamed for him. When Rose bolted to Philadelphia in 1979 after the Reds failed to offer him a serious contract, fans mounted citywide petition drives to get him back and flooded the stands with Rose jerseys and T-shirts whenever the Phillies were in town. Four years ago, after he returned to the Reds and knocked in his record-setting 4,192nd hit, a jubilant City Council scrapped its longstanding rule that roads and monuments could only be named after dead people and turned 2nd Street into Pete Rose Way.

"He's ours and we love him," Mayor Charles Luken proclaimed at the time.

That Rose could attain such civic stature says much about the importance of baseball to the image of Cincinnati, one of the smallest (pop: 370,000) and least cosmopolitan of major league cities. Cooperstown, N.Y., may claim to be the birthplace of the national pastime, but it is Cincinnati where the Reds became the nation's first professional team back in 1869.

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