CINCINNATI — Several times in my early years in Cincinnati, I would leave work, turn into the driveway and pull into the garage. And there I would sit. And sit. And sit. Often my wife had to come out to fetch me.
I wasn't sulking. I wasn't depressed. I wasn't disoriented.
I was listening to Pete Rose and Bob Trumpy talk on the radio. Dinner could wait.
Trumpy was the father of Cincinnati sportstalk and Pete was still hundreds of hits away from Ty Cobb. They would talk about players, managers and locker rooms. Pete would teach you strategies and mindset. Then he'd launch into a story from 20 years ago. He'd recount it word for word and pitch by pitch. I wasn't sure if he was accurate or just making it up. But he was damn good at it — and I was hooked.
I have to admit that I didn't like Pete at this point. Not one bit. From afar, he was a brash, arrogant guy with a minor league haircut. And there was that Ray Fosse thing. What was there to like?
My first brush with Pete was sometime late in 1979 when he was with the Phillies. I don't remember the circumstances, but I was told I could catch up with Pete — at River Downs.
We showed up unannounced and were ushered to an old rickety press box that sat atop an equally rickety grandstand. Pete was sitting in a room with a stack of bills, and I mean a stack. There wasn't a Washington or a Lincoln in the stack. A runner would go downstairs to place bets for Pete. He was unfazed by our presence. He was just enjoying his day off. Seemed like a regular guy.
About a year later, we were both invited to play in a "celebrity" volleyball game at Western Hills High School, Pete's alma mater. We walked into the school together. I remember that for two reasons. Number one, I couldn't believe he actually knew who I was. And number two, I remember him pointing to his rolled-up towel, which contained a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. "This is more than I ever carried into school went I went here," he laughed. I figured it wasn't worth asking if he was in the National Honor Society.
I went to Reds Spring Training camp in the early '80s and we drove from Tampa to the Phillies' camp in Clearwater to see if we could talk with Pete. As we arrived, we could see that practice had ended. Everyone was in the locker room, except two people, a coach and Pete. They were on a hot, dusty field where the coach was throwing balls at close range into the dirt. Pete was working at scooping them out. They did that for several minutes and then took time to talk with us before he went to take extra hitting. He showed me a new bat he had just received from Mizuno. "Pink?" I asked. "Rose-colored" he corrected me. "Rose-colored."
I don't think I ever appreciated the connection between Pete and Cincinnati until he returned to be the team's manager-player in a dismal 1984 season. I remember a big crowd of reporters meeting him at the airport gate. You could do that in those days. There was a press conference the next day on the suffocating Riverfront turf. Pete wore a Reds cap and jacket and a form-fitting pair of grey dress pants that flared out about a foot. John Travolta was back in town.
When the Reds were preparing to play the next night, photographer Rob Reichley and I ran into a young lady who was looking for the Reds clubhouse. She said she had to deliver a singing telegram to Pete. It was an hour before the game. Fat chance, I thought.
Not only did she get into the lobby adjacent to the clubhouse, but Pete took the time to come out. Then she serenaded him with her rendition of "Hello Pete" set to the tune of "Hello Dolly" while our camera rolled. How many guys would do that today?
Rob and I grabbed a spot in the photographer's well next to the third base dugout. On Pete's first at-bat, he shot a ball to left center field. Bob Dernier of the Cubs misplayed the ball and Pete kept running. Around first...around second. There wasn't going to be a throw but Pete knew what the fans wanted. He came sliding headfirst into third base. Riverfront exploded. I did everything in my power to keep from cheering. In the span of ten seconds, he revived baseball in this town.
A year later, he was nearing Cobb's all-time hit record, so we went on some road trips. He wouldn't do postgame interviews. He would hold court for some lively manager-media give-and-take. Dick Schaap, a tremendous sportswriter, was covering the quest for ABC. One night in St Louis, he was asking Pete about having such success with a perceived lack of athletic talent. You could see that Pete was a bit annoyed. But knowing that Schaap was also a horseracing fan, he said "Dick, I'm just like John Henry, got a big old heart. Just like John Henry." Schaap quickly pointed out that the great thoroughbred John Henry was a gelding. Pete didn't miss a beat. "Like I said, I'm not at all like John Henry...not at all like him."
Pete didn't much care about doing or saying things that were politically correct. You'll recall that he tied Cobb's hit record at Wrigley Field while Reds owner Marge Schott sat stewing in the press box at a Bengals game in Cincinnati. She was listening to the Reds game on a little transistor radio and she kept asking "What is he doing? Why is he playing?" She was scared to death he was going to break the record in Chicago.
Pete talked about his dilemma after the game. "I have 35,000 people out there wanting me to play and I have an old lady in Cincinnati kicking her dog every time I get a hit." He was not part of today's carefully scripted world.
When he got kicked out of baseball, I was doing morning sportscasts on WCKY Radio. Program Director Bruce Still asked if I would do a once-a-week talk show with Pete. I was stunned. His discussions with Bob Trumpy were the gold standard and now I was getting the chance. We did a season's worth of shows and even though I was never happy with my effort, it was great fun. I always thought I spent too much time listening and enjoying Pete.
I got him to re-tell many stories, and one I recalled from a CBS interview he had done with Charlie Rose a few years earlier. It was about playing the Phillies who that time had Gene Mauch as the manager and Mike Ryan was the catcher.
Pete stepped up to bat in the first inning. He tapped the plate with his bat and said to Ryan "How's it going Mike?"
"Fine Pete" Ryan answered. "Mauch told me to tell you what's coming tonight."
The first pitch was a curve. Ryan said "here comes another curve." It was. Pitch after pitch, Ryan warned Rose what was coming. Each time, he was correct.
Shag Crawford was umpiring behind the plate. "Tell him to shut up," Pete said.
"I can't tell him that, he's just trying to help you," Crawford answered.
"I don't need any help," Rose said.
It went that way the first three times Pete came to the plate. Ryan tipped off Rose to every pitch and Pete kept making outs. He figured Ryan would lie to him.
"I was totally frustrated," Pete said. "I didn't know whether to wind my tail or scratch my watch."
When he came to bat the fourth time, the score was tied at one and the Reds had a runner at first base. Again, Ryan told him what was coming. Pete decided to believe him and he crushed a pitch off the scoreboard for a double. It scored the go-ahead run and the Reds won the game 2-1.
When the Reds and Phills went to play the next night, Pete stepped in, tapped his bat on the plate and said to Ryan, "Hey Mike, how's it going?"
Ryan looked at Pete and said, "Mauch told me to tell you to go to hell."
Pete loved the story and so did I. Who knew that kind of thing happened in baseball? And who could articulate it so well.
Sure, I was disappointed when news came about Pete's betting and the coverup. But I always felt the punishment was much greater than the crime. Disgraced politicians get cushy lobbying jobs, disgraced businessmen get golden parachutes and disgraced clergy get a new parish. Yet baseball just keeps dealing Pete the high hard one.
Yeah, he's still brash and he still has a certain arrogance. And If he took off his cap, he probably still has a bad haircut.
But he simply was the most interesting guy I've ever had a chance to cover. I grew to like him a great deal. I'm glad the Reds are putting him in their Hall of Fame. To hell with Cooperstown. This is where Pete's stories all started.