Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Pete Rose can be real jerks. But a jerk can also be a tragic figure. Bonds and Clemens had natural talent that elevated them to the realm of Mays and Mathewson. Rose was not blessed with God-given talent. “Charlie Hustle,” through sheer determination, clawed his way to the pinnacle.
All three, had they played it straight, would be immortalized in bronze at Cooperstown. Year after year they could have come back to the shrine of baseball and mingled with their fellow Hall of Famers and welcomed new members. Instead, they’re pitiful pariahs, relegated to the shadows of the national pastime to wonder what might have been.
Rose carries an additional burden. Bonds and Clemens seemed to like the competition, but they never gave the impression they loved baseball. Rose ate, drank, and breathed it. He was more than a player; he was a fan. He knew the game’s history and its records. He loved being on a baseball field, but his addiction to gambling and his arrogance in denying it brought shame and banishment. I feel for him—going from one baseball function to another—sitting on the periphery signing autographs for money.
I have a vivid memory of him that both thrills and saddens me. Rose lacked the grace of DiMaggio, the power of Ruth, and the speed of Henderson. But he had the guts of Cobb and the instincts of Jeter. Those intangibles came to life in one brilliant base-running gambit. I saw it and I’ll never forget it.
Rose hammers a line drive into the gap in right-center; the right fielder chases after it; Rose churns around first and heads for second as the fielder cuts the ball off near the warning track; Rose, half way to second, watches the fielder and breaks stride as he nears the base, as if satisfied with a routine stand-up double; the fielder, seeing this, relaxes for an instant and lobs the ball toward the infield.
In that Cobb-like instant Rose accelerates, rounds second, and races to third where he slides in headfirst, beating the relay by inches. The dust still swirling and the crowd cheering, he jumps to his feet, stands on the bag and claps his hands in sheer joy.
What makes this vintage Rose is that he did it at the end of his career in an exhibition game at a minor-league ballpark in Portland, Oregon, where he played the entire nine innings like it was the seventh game of the World Series.
Oh, Pete, look what you did. Why?