Pete Rose steals the show

As baseball honors the team of the century at the World Series, the all-time hits leader banned for gambling proves he can't be exiled forever.

Published October 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

To the roar of a minute-long standing ovation, Pete Rose took his first step back to baseball legitimacy Sunday night, joining the awe-inspiring group honored at this year's World
as the team of the century. The moving pre-game ceremony was far more memorable than the game, which the listless Atlanta Braves dropped 7-2 to fall behind the New York Yankees 2-0 in the Series.

Rose is still banned from baseball for gambling, and he's still a moral riddle, but the man put way too
much into the game for baseball to keep him from
resuming his rightful place sooner or later. Commissioner Bud Selig may
dislike Rose. His skin may crawl at the thought of Rose and his uncouth,
unapologetic style. But Selig just cannot keep Rose out of
baseball forever. Second chances are too much a way of life in this country.

"I mean, Charles Manson gets a hearing every year, doesn't he?" Rose
asked Sunday in a pre-game session with reporters, and before the laughter at that line died down, he turned to his son, Tyler, seated to his right and added: "This kid thinks his dad's a monster."
He looked away from his son and down, blinking back tears, and
just about everyone in the Turner Field interview room with Rose had to feel the emotion. I sure did, and I was never much of a Rose fan. This being Rose, there was no thought that the tears and the words about his son were mere performance. If
Rose could say things just to say them, he'd have talked his way out of this years ago.

There was always a dumb man's stubborn persistence to his brilliance as a player, an ornery urge to just keep barreling ahead no matter what. (He also cracked: "I might arm-wrestle [Selig] when I see him.") This quality made Rose baseball's all-time hits leader, with 4,256, and made him a hit with just the sort of modest, unpretentious fans baseball most needs to think about these days, catering as it does, in this era of charter seats and $7 beers, to the upscale crowd. Fans relate to Rose, whether they love him or hate him, and anyone who doubted that just had to take in the pre-game ceremony Sunday night.

To Selig's credit, Major League Baseball did not interfere with the
fans' desire to vote Rose onto the team of the century. The commissioner and others may be able to keep Rose out of the Hall of Fame for now, but they abided by his selection as one of the century's premier outfielders.

And when the team was announced, the capacity crowd had plenty to cheer, including such unforgettable sights as Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. working together to help Ted Williams into his seat out on the ad hoc stage set up over second
base. But these fans obviously had Rose on their minds, and they were primed to make a statement about his place in the game. Almost before P.A. announcer Vin Scully had gotten the words "Charlie Hustle" out of his mouth, the Atlanta fans were whooping and hollering. They gave Rose an ovation that lasted a full 55 seconds, longer even than what hometown hero Hank Aaron received.

"I thought it was great, because Pete has been away from the game so
long; I think the fans that are true fans miss him," said NBC broadcaster Joe Morgan, Rose's former Cincinnati Reds teammate.

A Major League Baseball spokesman said Selig would have no comment on Rose's
appeal for a second chance, and there's not likely to be much change in the near future on the Rose matter. But time and public opinion are both on Rose's side. Selig will not be commissioner forever. Baseball will have to find a way to let Rose back into the game, even if he stubbornly refuses to offer the sort of clear-cut apology that baseball claims it wants from him. He tried on Sunday, though in his own barrel-here/barrel-there way.

"I would do anything in my power to change what has happened to me in the last 10 years," Rose said. "I would. But I can't change what has happened. You know how I feel. You know I'm sorry. I mean, I guess maybe when I got the hit to break Ty Cobb's record, I shouldn't have cried at first base because no one thinks I'm sorry unless I cry. I got feelings like everybody else has feelings, obviously. If anybody in this group doesn't think I'm sorry for what happened ... I must tell you this: that I'm sitting here looking at a lot of friends out there, and I can't think of anybody I'm looking at that I hurt."

Then, once again, he indicated his son Tyler, adding: "Unless I turn this way."

Maybe most important, Rose said that if he was given a second
chance, he would never need a third chance. It's worth noting that Rose
was never caught gambling during his Hall of Fame-caliber career as a player. It was only later, when he was managing, that he ran afoul of commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. Many in baseball think Selig still blames Rose for the heart attack that took Giamatti's life, and there could be something to that. But also at stake is a clash between baseball as the genteel diversion of Ivy League types like Giamatti and baseball as a sweaty, unruly, blue-collar struggle.
That's not to say that Giamatti did not love the game deeply, but there's something different about the devotion of a man like Rose, who gave so many decades of his life to playing baseball.

"Bart and I had common things," Rose said Sunday. "We both loved the
game. We both cared about the game. The only difference is I loved the game a hell of a lot longer and I cared about the game a lot longer because I was in the game a lot longer. And I seriously believe that if Bart would have lived, and we all wish he would have ... he would have given me a second chance. That's the kind of man he was. That's my own personal opinion."

Rose is probably right about that. If you pick up a copy of Giamatti's
little baseball book, you find yourself in conversation with a warm intellect and, most of all, a restless one. Giamatti would have seen that Rose had done his time in the wilderness. He would have seen the hypocrisy of giving drug abusers repeated opportunities to redeem themselves when Rose pays such a high price.

It's fair to ask why Rose can't catch a break, especially given all that he has to offer. He's full of himself in a way that would be comical if it weren't tragic, but he does the damnedest things -- like closing his media session before Game 2 by thanking all the gathered reporters for writing about baseball. No athlete thanks reporters, not unless we're talking junior college squash or something, and it actually felt kind of nice.

Rose still looks like a big kid, still grins like a big kid and still at times talks like a big kid. That's why fans love him -- so much that NBC
affiliates were besieged Sunday evening with calls from viewers angry about what they saw as the overly hostile tone of NBC interviewer Jim Gray's questions to Rose just before the game.

"I'm not here to talk about something that happened years ago," Rose said at one point Sunday. "This is 1999, getting ready to go into the 21st century. We're here on a festive situation tonight. Wouldn't it be nice if Bart could be here tonight? Wouldn't it be nice if Babe Ruth could be here tonight and Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio? You know, if I had my wish, they'd all be here."

It was a silly thing to say, especially for a man whose trademark brush
cut looks sillier than ever now that he's using some kind of ghastly
red-brown rinse. But you know what? An hour or two later, when Rose was on the field with Williams and Mays and Stan "the Man" Musial and all the others, and the names "Cobb" and "Mantle" and "DiMaggio" were being called out, it did somehow feel as if they were all there.

Thank God for John Rocker. If it weren't for the Braves closer and the real hope
that a mob will descend on him this week at Yankee Stadium and tattoo his
backside with a likeness of George Steinbrenner, it would be hard to think of
this World Series as a series and not just a drawn-out preamble to another Yankee
ticker tape parade through the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan.

Rocker's wild-boy bravado was shrunk way down this weekend. The key to the
Yankees' jumping out to a shockingly easy 2-0 lead in the Series over the weekend
was the eighth inning of Game 1. Rocker came sprinting in from the bullpen and
promptly gave up a two-run single and walked in a run as the Yankees took Game
1, 4-1. Sunday night David Cone was spotted a 3-0 lead before he ever took the
mound and cruised to a 7-2 win that was even more of a blowout than the
scoreboard indicated.

With any hope of a competitive Series quickly evaporating, there was nothing much
to do after Game 2 but dodge boom-mike holders and camera people in the Braves
locker room and see what Rocker had to say about heading up to Yankee Stadium for
Game 3 on Tuesday night. Rocker has made various colorful cracks about New
Yorkers, and he knows he's going to be booed, heckled and taunted.

Last time he
was in New York, to face the Mets in the National League Championship Series last week, fans
took to throwing things at Rocker as he made his customary sprint from the
bullpen. But if the Braves' pulse is measured in the amount of smack Rocker
talks, they may still have a fighting chance. "There's only about 10 people that
I value their opinion, and none of them live in New York," he said. "The Yankee
fans will probably be louder than usual, since they have a lead in the Series."

The Rocker factor is important because all roads to a palatable Series lead
through him. As much as the stench of sweep might be in the air, as if someone
left something unspeakable upwind, the World Series does have a way of surprising
people. You will hear a lot about the 1996 Series, in which the defending World
Series champs (the Braves) won the first two games but lost the Series anyway (to
the Yankees). That comparison didn't fire up the Braves' imaginations much on
Sunday night. They seemed much more interested in talking about how the Mets made
a contest of the National League Championship Series, even though the Braves
jumped out to a 3-0 edge.

The comparison is a strange one to make, as if the Braves are already conceding
Game 3, and speaks volumes of the team's apparent softness. There's no other word
for it. Starter Kevin Millwood stared toward home plate during his brief
appearance in Game 2 with a look no manager ever wants to see in his pitcher's
eyes. It wasn't fear, exactly. This was more like foreknowledge: Whatever I
throw, they will drill. "I had good stuff tonight, I was just throwing it over
the middle of the plate," Millwood said. "I made mistakes and they made me pay
for it. That's what a good team does to you."

You almost had to wince with each fresh crack of the bat, not out of sympathy for
Millwood or the Braves but out of despair at the game turning into such a
pathetically limp no-contest. The Yankees piled up a robust eight hits and five runs
(four earned) in Millwood's two innings, and the runs kept coming, thanks to sloppy

Braves manager Bobby Cox shook up his lineup and started shortstop Ozzie Guillen
and second baseman Keith Lockhart. While Cox gets points for ingenuity, the move
didn't work out the way he'd hoped. Guillen let a weak, heavy-english blooper
drop, bringing home an unearned run and providing an all-too-telling replay to
highlight the Braves' gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight approach to this Series
so far. "I feel like Bill Buckner," Guillen joked good-naturedly afterward. "I
just dropped the ball. I misjudged it. ... But only one run scored. We can't lose
a World Series in two games. I've never seen that before. I don't think anybody
here is panicking."

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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