CINCINNATI — Lost in the intensity of the spotlight around Pete Rose is the fact that he was one heck of a teammate, says Big Red Machine center fielder Cesar Geronimo, who joined the team in 1972 as part of the Joe Morgan trade.
“He was the first guy to welcome me over here in spring training – and because he knew I wasn’t making (as much money as most of the rest of the guys), he’d buy me clothes as gifts or just as a way of making feel at home,” Geronimo said Friday night after the Big Red Machine ceremony on the field before the Reds-Padres game.
It is the 40th anniversary of the second Reds World Championship in 1975-76. Seven of the Reds’ “Great Eight” are in town this weekend to celebrate that team and to honor Rose, who is having his famous number 14 retired and being inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.
Former second baseman Joe Morgan, the National League Most Valuable Player in 1975-76, was unable to make it because he’s at home in Oakland fighting some health issues that keep him from flying.
Morgan, of course, gets most of the attention from the trade made after the 1971 season, but pitcher Cactus Jack Billingham and Geronimo were key acquisitions in the deal.
“(Reds superscout) Ray Shore was in the Dominican (Winter League) doing some scouting after the deal was made, and he told me, ‘If you weren’t in that deal, we wouldn’t have made it,’” Geronimo recalled. “(Reds general manager) Bob Howsam told me the same thing in spring training. That made me feel good. I hadn’t played a lot in Houston. I don’t think anybody over here (among the Reds players) even knew who I was, but I had a good spring training and made it into the lineup in right field.”
The 1972 Opening Day box score shows Geronimo taking the 0-for-3 collar in a 4-1 loss to Don Sutton and the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the game story indicates he made a nice diving catch in right.
He played 91 games in right that season and 22 in center, but he flipped it the next year: 104 in center, 26 in right.
From 1974 through 1977, there was no doubt who was the Reds center fielder and bona fide member of the Great Eight: respectively, Geronimo played 145, 146, 146 and 147 games in center, winning the Gold Glove all four seasons, as did catcher Johnny Bench, second baseman Morgan and shortstop Davey Concepcion.
Up the middle, there was nothing like it in baseball. Geronimo held his own at the plate as well during that four-year stretch, averaging .278.
Geronimo said he has heard Morgan talk about the impact that playing with Rose had on his game. 'The Chief,' as he was nicknamed by his teammates, said the same thing Friday night.
“You think you’re playing hard, then you watch Pete and you think, ‘I need to step it up to step it up a notch,’ Geronimo said, grinning. “I’ll admit it: When I was in Houston, I didn’t like the way Pete played. But I came over here and earned a new appreciation for him and what he gave the team.”
It was a nice turnout by the Big Red Machine Friday night, especially by the pitchers: Santo Alcala, Jack Billingham, Pat Darcy, Don Gullett, Pat Zachry, Will McEnaney, Manny Sarmiento (known to then-Reds manager Sparky Anderson as “Manny Sarmentino”), Rawly Eastwick and Fred Norman.
Rose had a good time with the Norman, especially. Rose was the last player to be introduced for the line-up along the first-base line, so he slow-hustled it past his former teammates, slapping everybody’s hands as he went by. When he came to the 5-foot-8 Norman, though, Rose raised his right hand to its near 7-foot height. The diminiutive Norman shook his head; Rose grinned and and then lowered his hand, as they both laughed.
Also present were reserves Bob Bailey, Mike Lum, Don Werner,
And, of course, Dan Driessen, designated hitter in the 1976 World Series, who received an especially appreciative round of applause.
Geronimo, who now spends his retirement listening to and reading about music in the Dominican Republic, said these Big Red Machine reunions never get old.
Did Geronimo think Rose was going to amass 3,000 hits, let alone 4,256?
“Oh, sure,” Geronimo said. “I think the first time Pete picked up a baseball bat, he said, 'Look out, Ty Cobb, here I come.’”