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COMMENTARY : Pete Rose, as a Baseball Player, Was What a Hero is All About

January 12, 1992|MIKE LITTWIN | BALTIMORE SUN

The funny thing is, I don't feel bad for Pete Rose personally. A lot of this is his fault after all.

He's the one who put himself in position for the self-righteous brothers to kick him out of the game he loves. And, believe me, if it were someone else, Rose is the last one you'd run to for sympathy. Ask Ray Fosse.

History is the ultimate loser here.

Baseball lost the chance for Pete Rose and Tom Seaver to enter the Hall of Fame together. In Rose and Seaver, you had consummate baseball players who were completely different and yet equally deserving. They were, in baseball terms, giants. Instead, Seaver was elected along with Rollie Fingers, a relief pitcher. It's not the same.

Seaver was the supremely gifted athlete-human any man who ever drew a breath must have wanted to be. He's smart, glib and charming. He was dedicated to his craft, which he made into an art. He was a fierce competitor and graceful winner who commanded the biggest stage the game has to offer and never once seemed to slip. What I'm saying is: He was Jim Palmer without the whine or the underwear ads.

The thing about Seaver was that everyone liked him, even his teammates, and you know how regulation baseball players are about pitchers. Seaver made it his business to fit in the clubhouse, where he knew how to scratch and to say "bleepin'-A" with the rest of the boys, although he drew the line at chewing tobacco. Seaver fit everywhere -- broadcast booth, boardroom, pitcher's mound.

And he'll fit nicely into the Hall of Fame where he is going on the basis of a record vote -- 98.8 percent. That would make him the greatest player ever, if you believe the voters. You do not. But he was, with Palmer and Steve Carlton, the best pitcher of his generation, and that's worth something.

And yet, he was no Rose.

It isn't fair to say Seaver was simply great, because he was more than that. But he was not mythic, as Rose was. He was magnificent, but it didn't seem as if he'd been delivered whole out of the earth. As Rose did.

As a player, Rose was never a natural. He was not particularly fast nor particularly large nor particularly anything. He had this barrel-shaped body and this extraordinary will and the bad haircut, but mostly he had this instinct for the game and for indelible moments and for greatness.

He was never, not for a moment, the best player in the game. For most of his career, he wasn't even the best player on his team, not when there was Johnny Bench catching and Joe Morgan at second. But he had something they couldn't touch. You can't put your finger on it, because no one else ever had it quite the same way. He was Pete Rose. Everyone knows what that means.

It means he was combative and cocky and slid headfirst. He knew all his numbers and knew what they meant. No one fit better in a clubhouse than he did. No one understood better the never-ending adolescence that is the essence of the professional athlete. And no one, for better or worse, represented that adolescence better. Rose never grew up. He thought he didn't have to.

But that, too, is what sports is about. Certainly, it's what the Hall of Fame is about. It's about preserving our heroes in their youth. The plaques on the walls of the Cooperstown museum capture the players at the height of their powers, where they live, in our minds anyway, forever.

Isn't that what Pete Rose means?

Seaver holds up on his own. If you could have him over for dinner today, you could talk for hours and never mention baseball. Or, if you did talk baseball, it wouldn't have to be about Seaver. And if it were about Seaver, it would be about style and grace.

Rose never had any grace, and his style was a crudely imagined version of the word. To see Pete Rose in person is to understand how there are no heroes up close. If you invite Rose for dinner, he'd probably try to sell you one of his bats, and maybe he'd put a move on your wife. He has never been what you'd call a lovely person.

Where Rose mattered was on the field. It wasn't possible that he broke Ty Cobb's record for most hits, but he did. He had more hits than anyone who ever played the game, although there must have been dozens of better hitters.

He did it because he had the imagination to believe anything was possible. As it turns out, anything is possible when they tell you Rose won't be in the Hall of Fame. He has been to prison, he has been humiliated and he has been banned from the game. That should be sufficient punishment.

Instead, because of the vindictiveness of the Lords of Baseball, we're left to deal with the real-life Rose, only a man and a pitiful one at that. He's much more palatable when bronzed.

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