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30 years later: Remembering Rose's hit record

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Posted at 3:01 AM, Sep 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-12 03:01:32-04

People are always surprised at my answer when they ask what was my favorite individual moment in Reds history. They think I'm going to say, as do so many other long-time Reds observers: "Pete Rose's record-setting hit."

It's not even in my top five, although one particular day of that pursuit is my No. 1.

It happened at Wrigley Field in Chicago, when Rose almost broke Ty Cobb's career hit record, on a day when nobody expected it to happen, bringing some surprise and serendipity to the inevitable.

Going into that three-day weekend series with the Cubs, Rose was slated to start the first two games against right-handed pitchers and get the final game off against left-hander Steve Trout.

If not for a small twist of fate, this photo would've been taken at Wrigley.

In his later years, the switch-hitting Rose rarely started against left-handers, because left-handers “turned him around” -- that is, forced him to bat right-handed, his weaker side.

So this is where I am going to begin my reminiscence, a story about the days leading up to "The Hit," and its place in baseball history.

The 30th anniversary of the "The Hit" is Friday. It will be officially celebrated Saturday at Great American Ball Park with a Pete Rose bobblehead giveaway to everybody in attendance. There also will be a ceremony on the field honoring Rose.

Yes, a funny thing happened to Rose — and the attendant media circus — on his way to breaking Cobb's all-time hit record in Cincinnati on Sept. 11, 1985, three days after his near-fateful encounter in Chicago on Sept. 8.

A bicycle accident.

Trout was replaced that morning in Chicago, sending the media scrambling. Many of the local media had left the Rose circus to catch the Bengals' opening game at Riverfront Stadium, while the national media headed for the Chicago Bears football game at Soldier Field.

I remained, because I was working on a book for the Cincinnati Enquirer, "Pete Rose: 4,192." It was a book not only about the hit itself, but about Rose's career-long pursuit of it, a pursuit that I personally believe began with his 3,000th hit, because he was "only" 37 years old when he achieved it -- and hit .302 that year (1978) and .331 (with a league-leading .418 on-base percentage) the next.

Rose, who was "only" 37 at the time, and the Reds beat the Giants 8-2 at Riverfront Stadium on July 9, 1978. Photo by Blake Bolinger via Flickr

Over the years, I've gotten to know Rose pretty well, and I have the strong suspicion that there is no way he wasn't thinking of 4,000 when he got to 3,000. And probably sooner.

I think Rose knew then that if he took care of himself — and he always took care of himself (no booze and no drug stronger than "a greenie," amphetamines that in the 1960s were present and available in almost every major league clubhouse) — that he had a shot at chasing down Cobb.

To me, Rose was a simple yet complicated fellow, somebody I enjoyed being around because of the great stories he told and his zest for life and the way he filled my notebook. I'd first met him at the Reds' spring training, 1985, in Tampa, where I went to begin chronicling his final season of pursuing Cobb.

I remember the meeting well. Rose could see I was a bit nervous

"Come on down," he said, "I won't bite."

After I introduced myself as a brand-new sports writer with the Enquirer (I was 32, but had spent the first 10 years of my career working as a general assignment reporter on the Enquirer's news desk), Rose asked me what I was doing in town.

"I'm doing a book on you," I answered.

"What are you getting out of it?" asked Rose, still congenial, but a bit more serious.

"Nothing beyond my regular Enquirer salary," I answered.

"What am I getting out of it?" asked Rose, again, still congenial, but even more serious.

"Nothing that I know of," I answered.

"Well, you better go make a phone call," he replied, not totally devoid of goodwill.

And that's how it all began.

Rose's interest in money has never wavered.

I made that phone call he had requested, and reported back to him my editor's answer – that Rose had an exclusive deal with The Sporting News and the Enquirer couldn’t pay him if the paper wanted to. So Rose told me that he wouldn't cooperate with me beyond the daily press conferences with the other writers.

But he never once declined my additional questions that came afterward. And he was never anything but wonderful with me.

That, too, is what I remember best about Rose: What a great interview he always was, well, except when the gambling investigation came along in 1989.

Rose nearly broke Cobb's record on the road.

In 1985, Rose could still hit, though it was mostly singles. Throughout his career, he was famed as an extra-base gap hitter — his 746 career doubles are second only to Ty Cobb — and for often punctuating them with his patented, head-first, Superman slides.

But one of the most memorable days of his 24-year career was the game in which he hit three home runs at Shea Stadium (1978), and another was when he delightfully resurrected that ghost at Wrigley Field seven years later and hit a home run off Derek Botelho for hit No. 4,188.

It's one of the fun sidelights to celebrating 4,192, many baseball fans have a favorite Rose moment or hit, thus making it a very personal record.

Which brings up what is probably my second favorite individual Reds' moment: Rose returning to Cincinnati on Aug. 17, 1984 after playing for the Expos and Phillies and doubling on his first at-bat of his second "career" at Riverfront Stadium, bringing down the house with a headfirst slide as the Cubs' center fielder Bob Dernier misplayed the hit. That is when I, and everybody else, knew that Rose still had "it."

Rose had begun 1985 with a bang, 2-for-3 with 2 RBI on Opening Day, and then settled into a platoon with longtime teammate and friend Tony Perez at first base.

The chase of Cobb picked up in intensity on Sept. 1, when the Reds began a six-day road trip to St. Louis and Chicago, with Rose slated to play in four of them.

Uh-oh.

Would he get the record on the road? Would he manipulate his lineup to take himself out of it? Everybody knew he wouldn't pinch-hit for himself; Pete Rose doesn't do that.

By St. Louis the press contingent had swelled to 70. By Chicago, where he arrived for a three-game weekend series needing only five hits to break the record, it was 150.

In Chicago, as soon as Rose set foot on the field that Friday afternoon, he was encircled by a dozen photographers; dozens more, observed a scribe, "milled about on the grass."

"Is this normal?" asked Reds outfielder Paul O'Neill, who had been called up from the minors only a few days before.

On his first at-bat, Rose struck out on three pitches, the last one of them called. In his second at-bat, he worked the count to 3-2.

"Whaddaya think I'm gonna give you now?" asked Cubs catcher Jody Davis.

"Jody, I don't give a (bleep) what you're gonna give me now," said Rose, two seconds later uncoiling on a Derek Botelho fastball.

As soon as the bat met ball, Rose, and Botelho, both knew where hit No. 4,188 was going, over the ivy-covered right-field wall into the fourth row of the bleachers. The tremendous ovation required that Rose make a curtain call -- the first time anybody could remember, including Rose, that he had made a curtain call as a Red on the road.

In the sixth inning of that game, he lined a single to left off Reggie Patterson for hit No. 4,189, only two to go to tie the record. The Reds went on to win 7-5.

In Saturday's game, Rose took an 0-fer, although in his third of four at-bats he had ripped a line drive directly at pitcher Jay Ballard's hip.

"Greatest day of my career," Ballard said. "First major league win, and taking a base hit away from Pete."

 Even Rose figured "The Hit" would now come at home. He wasn't going to get any at-bats Sunday, since Trout was starting.

Here is an excerpt from my book:

Cubs pitching coach Billy Connors was one of the (first) ones to know. At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, he saw Trout in the Cubs training room. Trout's left shoulder and elbow were badly scraped. "What happened to you?" Connors asked. Trout explained that he'd been bicycling with his wife and daughter near home the previous night. His bike skidded on the gravel and he fell off, landing on his shoulder... The word spread through the stadium via ushers, security guards, writers and broadcasters. The turn of events was too bizarre to believe.... Cincinnati's local TV crew had headed home, as had Rose's wife, Carol, and his attorney, Reuven Katz.

In Rose’s first at-bat he lined a hit to left for No. 4,190. His second at-bat, he grounded out to second.

Rose lined No. 4,191 to right and Wrigley Field went nuts.

More from the book:

In the Reds dugout, Rose was getting plenty of advice. "Don't do it, don't do it," Cincinnati native Dave Parker kept saying. Rose knew that teammate and long-time friend Tony Perez wanted the record to come in Cincinnati, too. "What are you doing, buddy?" asked Perez. "What are you going to do?" Answered Rose: "I'm going to try to get a base hit." He said this is the way he had always envisioned it, winning the game with No. 4,192.

I remembered that Rose got one more shot. In the seventh, off Cubs pitcher Larry Sorensen, Rose grounded sharply to shortstop Shawon Dunston's glove side and was thrown out at first. In my memory that was Rose's last at-bat that day. But it wasn't.

With Cubs' first baseman and Cincinnati native Leon Durham at the plate in bottom of the eighth and the Reds down 5-4, the skies opened and the game was stopped. Two hours later, play resumed, the Reds tied it up 5-5, and here came Rose in the bottom of the ninth to face Cubs' reliever Lee Smith. Rose struck out swinging.

The threat of the record-breaker coming on the road was over.

Two games later — following an 0-for-4 at Riverfront (three popups and a line-out in his final at bat, "momentarily stopping the hearts of 51,000 fans") — came the record-breaker. It came on the night of the 57th anniversary of Cobb's final at-bat.

Rose, in his first at-bat off San Diego Padres pitcher Eric Show in the first inning, smacked No. 4,192 to left, in front of Padres left fielder Carmelo Martinez.

We all know the rest of the story, particularly the emotional celebration at first base when Rose broke down.

But for me, the story had come three days earlier at Wrigley Field.

That is the game I will never forget, the game when Rose stood at the plate with the game on the line and said the "home gate for 4,192" be damned.

That is the Rose I will always remember.

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."