Erardi: Big crowd brought to laughter and tears at Pete Rose's statue dedication

CINCINNATI -- Emotions ran deep Saturday afternoon at Pete Rose's statue dedication, as the Hit King gave a weighty valedictory that would have played well in Cooperstown. He gave way to both posterity and his pal, Joe Morgan, the 1975-76 back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player who blazed the trail for two World Championships and all four monuments on statue row at Great American Ball Park.

The sight of Morgan, walking with metal canes as he made his way up the aisle just outside the stadium under a blazing sun and past Rose's canvas-draped headfirst statue, moved fans to tears. Memories ran deep for "one-foot-on-the-carpet" Little Joe, a reference the speedster used to get onto the artificial surface that awaited outside the dirt-cutout at first base at Riverfront Stadium.

Anybody who thinks the Reds spend too much time celebrating their history don't have a sense of it. The Big Red Machine was one of the great teams in baseball history, and almost inarguably featured the greatest starting eight ever, only one of whom (Dominican center fielder Cesar Geronimo) was unable able to make it to the festivities Saturday.

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Rose was at his magnanimous best, calling Johnny Bench the best catcher ever, Morgan the best second baseman ever and Tony Perez "the best Cuban player" ever.

"Everybody on this stage was an All-Star," Rose said.

Left unsaid by the Hit King is that nobody in history this side of Ty Cobb ever played the game harder than Peter Edward Rose.

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there's a statue out here someday of (Big Red Machine manager) Sparky Anderson," Rose said. "And let's get one for (shortstop) Davey Concepcion."

Huge roars went up from the crowd at the mention of each name. Once again, Rose played off the crowd's reaction. He suggested that the Reds brass best not dally in honoring Concepcion.

"Davey lives in Venezuela," said Rose, "so we don't know how much longer he's going to be around."

Rose thanked, but not by name, his coaches at the levels of Knothole, American Legion, Western Hills High School and the minor and major leagues. He said he identified with Cincinnatians, having "drank the same water and eaten the same food." He talked about his contemporaries from Cincinnati who played in the major leagues.

"Think about the players who grew up here -- Billy Doran, Ronnie Oester, Dave Parker, Buddy Bell (and Leon Durham, he would add later); what'd we all have in common?" asked Rose. "They busted their ass playing the game to win. And I appreciate you people (referring the crowd), coming out and expecting us to play the game the right way."

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He said the fans drove him to play the game hard. Rose was the ultimate crowd-pleaser.

As fans chanted, "Pete! Pete! Pete!" Rose answered with, "Go ahead, you're not going to make me cry," something he was sure of, having already broken down at Friday night's testimonial dinner.

The crowd was impossible to estimate, spreading and rising and climbing outward and upward to the apartment building across Joe Nuxall Way, the rooftop of the gift shop looking out over Crosley Terrace and the party tents set up for revelers on Freedom Way.

Two hours later, at a separate, on-field ceremony before the start of the Reds-Dodgers game, there were some empty seats scattered about, but every corner and final row in nosebleed country was full. "Hall of Fame! Hall of Fame!" chanted some fans, referring to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, from which Rose has been banned by virtue of being on the permanently ineligible list, a result of his gambling problems in the mid- to late 1980s, including on Reds games.

Rose, never short of an ad-lib, did not miss a beat, leaning forward into the microphone and answering, "I'm in the Reds Hall of Fame -- that's enough... The Reds Hall of Fame is No. 1."

Rose's best lines came at the earlier ceremony, probably because it was first and fresher and everybody was feeling a little friskier, having not yet been drained by the heat.

About sculptor Tom Tsuchiya's crowd-address -- not all that long, but Rose was just having fun -- "I appreciate Tom's speech; the only problem, Tom, is that while you were talking, one hundred and ninety-three people passed out... I hope I live as long as you can talk, brother."

Between the two ceremonies, Rose, Bench and Perez got to spend some time with family, friends and TV and print reporters in the media-interview room in the tunnel of the stadium. Off mike, I got to ask Rose what was his experience in noticing ballpark statuary during his playing days.

"Not much," he said. "Our (team) would pull in (to the stadiums), and we'd head for the clubhouse. The only one I recall seeing is Stan Musial in St. Louis, because we stayed in the hotel across from the ballpark and we walked to the ballpark."

He said he noticed the Musial statue was "high up," inaccessible to fans.

Rose said he liked the thought of fans being able to climb all over his sculpture.

"Man, that's great," he said.

"I like it, too, that when people walk over to (Great American Ball Park) from Downtown, they walk right by Joe and me," he said with a grin.

It was written last year -- when Morgan was too ill to make Rose's number retirement/Reds Hall of Fame induction -- that if Morgan could make Rose's statue dedication this year it would be even better than the Rose statue itself.

Which is exactly as it turned out.

Although the Reds lost to the Dodgers 10-2 Saturday, the game started out well in the first inning with the Reds' Billy Hamilton doing -- of all things -- a headfirst slide across home plate to score the first run of the game. Was it my imagination, or did Billy not put a little extra launch into that one?

As I exited the stadium, I saw a man having his photo taken at "Headfirst," already the shorthand for the Rose statue.

"What strikes you most about the sculpture?" I asked Jared Grace, 35, who like Joe Nuxhall grew up in Hamilton and settled in Fairfield.

"The hair -- it's flying, man," Grace said. "The sculptor captured the whole thing perfectly, right on down to the hair. It's awesome and amazing. You just know Pete wanted that (mop of hair) to be right."

John Erardi has covered baseball in Cincinnati for 30 years. He is a two-time Associated Press Ohio Sports Writer of the Year and co-author of six books on the Reds, including "Big Red Dynasty" and "Crosley Field."

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