CINCINNATI — A few minutes with Pete Rose is like a week with Average Joe Ballplayer. In those few minutes ‘The Hit King’ will provide a lifetime of stories and memories and, mostly, high entertainment.
It was my good fortune to spend 30 minutes with Rose before the 40-year Big Red Machine ceremony on the Great American Ball Park field.
His one-liners come rapid-fire, like Henny Youngman (ask your grandfather).
WHEN SOMEBODY ASKED which is best, going into the Reds Hall of Fame or having his number retired or getting a statue erected, Rose shot back, “What do you think?” The writer said, “Hall of Fame.”
Wrong answer. “How many people do you know who have a statue? Not too many. Of course, I have a statue and Joe Morgan says he has a sculpture.”
Rose likes to point out that when his statue emerges next year that the first four batters in the Big Red Machine lineup will have statues — Rose (the leadoff hitter), Morgan, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench.
“That’s why I scored more than 2,000 runs — the three guys behind me all have statues and are in the Hall of Fame. I mean, statues, not plaques. You have to be pretty damn good to have a statue. And that’s why I’m so damned tired, scoring all those runs.”
ROSE, OF COURSE, WORE a shirt with ‘Hit King’ stitched on the collar, as if anybody needed a reminder. Of course, Rose is rightfully touchy about the Ichiro Suzuki situation and how some people believe Ichiro is the hit king if they let him transfer more than 1,700 hits from Japan to America.
“After the 1978 season the Reds went on a tour of Japan and played 15 games,” said Rose. “My picture was on every ticket for every game. I had a 14-game hitting streak and went 0 for 3 the last game. That shows you how tough that pitching was.”
ROSE LAUGHED WHEN somebody brought up how former Reds general manager Dick Wagner used to fine players for throwing baseballs to fans in the stands. “He got me seven times in one year,” said Rose. “Now players throw every ball they have in their hands into the stands.”
About his induction Saturday into the Reds Hall of Fame, Rose said, “I don’t know what to expect. All I can tell you is that there will be an ass in every seat. And (Reds owner) Bob Castellini appreciates that.”
ROSE TRIED TO DEFINE the 1976 Reds, the team that swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series and then swept the New York Yankees in the World Series.
“I would never get in front or any group and say we were the best team in the history of baseball,” he said. “I don’t know about the ’27 Yankees or some of the Dodgers teams of the ‘50s with Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider and Roy Campanella.
“But I will go to my grave saying that The Big Red Machine was the most entertaining team ever,” he said. “We had white stars, we had black stars, we had Latino stars. We had a Hall of Fame manager (Sparky Anderson), we had speed, we had home run leaders, we had batting champions, we had daring base runners.
“And I’m going to tell you why we were so good,” he added. “You can analyze all the teams in baseball today and what teams in baseball today have potential MVPs every year that are catchers (Johnny Bench) and second basemen (Joe Morgan)? None. But that was The Big Red Machine. Then you can throw Tony Perez, Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster, Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo in there (he didn’t say his own name, but he didn’t need to state the obvious) and we had a pretty good team.”
ROSE, AS ALWAYS, stunned everybody when he was asked which team was the best, the 1975 World Series champions or the 1976 World Series Champions.
“Easy, 1970,” he said, referring to a team that lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in five games. “The ’70 team was 70-and-30 after 100 games. Not too many teams are 70-30 after 100 games. The Cubs were on that pace until they lost four in a row now.”
Rose hammered home a high, hard one when he talked about baseball in Cincinnati.
“We kind of spoiled baseball for this town,” he said. “People don’t want to keep talking about the past. Reds fans talk about The Big Red Machine and we just made it hard for guys who follow. We expect to win here. The culture is different here when it comes to playing baseball.”
JOHNNY BENCH, ALWAYS the unofficial team spokesman for The Big Red Machine said, “We were given that name and it was prideful. Everybody took the greatest pride with that name. Opposing teams came out to watch us take batting practice and infield just because of the way we conducted ourselves. It was a magical time. It was our greatest time. If we didn’t win in 1975 we were going to be the Buffalo Bills. We WERE the Buffalo Bills. We were supposed to be The Big Red Machine and we weren’t. Yet. We hadn’t won anything.”
After the Reds won in ’75, everybody expected the Reds to repeat in 1976 and Bench said, “That’s a lot of pressure. But in that clubhouse it wasn’t pressure, it was what was expected. Every time we went out on the field, even if we were down two or three runs late in the game, we knew we were going to win, they knew we were going to win and we knew they knew we were going to win.”
And that’s what The Big Red Machine did? Ask the ’76 New York Yankees.