CINCINNATI — They won’t give him a plaque in Cooperstown but in Cincinnati they’ve given Pete Rose everything but the Carew Tower and the Roebling Bridge.
They named a street next to Great American Ball Park for him, Pete Rose Way, they’ve retired his number 14, they’ve put him into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.
And on a torchy Saturday afternoon they unveiled his statue on Crosley Terrace outside the ballpark — a unique statue of Rose sliding head first. And oh so apropos.
“You have to agree that I was kind of known for being aggressive,” said Rose. “Part of being aggressive is sliding head first. I started sliding head first when I was nine years old. Can’t you tell? Look at me. Do you think God would give you a face like this? And you ALWAYS got your picture in the paper and I was on magazine covers.”
ROSE ALSO WAS KNOWN FOR watching pitches that he didn’t swing at go directly into the catcher’s mitt. He watched the ball splat into the mitt, swiveling his head to see the mitt.
“My first game in the majors,” said Rose. “That famous umpire who wore a bow tie, Jocko Conlan, was behind the plate. I watched the first two pitches go by, swiveling my head real quick to look back at the mitt. Well, after the second one, Jocko whips off his mask and points at me and says, ‘Don’t you look at me rookie. I know what I’m doing back here.’ I never even saw him. I was looking at the ball in the catcher’s mitt. He scared the hell out of me.”
Of the hundreds of head-first slides perpetrated by Rose — and he never got hurt once performing them — some stand out in his always stiletto sharp baseball mind.
ASKED ABOUT HIS FAVORITE, he smiled and said, “I’ll tell you what it was. I was on first in an All-Star game and Henry Aaron got a base hit to center. I went into third head first and I was safe.
“I was dusting myself off when third base coach Tommy Lasorda started telling me which outfielders could throw and which ones couldn’t throw. I said, ‘Tommy, I been in this league 15 years so I know who can throw and who can’t throw.’”
Rose said Lasorda paused a moment and then said, “By the way, we had a vote before the game and you were voted the second best-looking guy on the team.”
Rose asked, “Who the hell was the guy who finished first?”
“The other 24 guys tied for first,” said Lasorda.
ROSE’S SECOND FAVORITE head-firster was in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
“I was on first and Joe Morgan hit the little flare to center field,” said Rose. “I went right over the bag at third and was straddling the base, the bag under my belly. It is all about timing.”
And then there was the one when he returned to Cincinnati as player-manager, the prodigal son returning to play in a Reds uniform after his self-imposed free agent exile to Philadelphia and Montreal. On his first at bat back, the play ended with Rose diving head first into third and a full house in Riverfront stadium went bonkers.
“That was a single and a two-base error by center fielder Bobby Dernier,” said Rose. “It was so damn muggy that night. Sports Illustrated ran a picture of that game after my slide and my uniform front was completely mud-caked and it wasn’t raining. The cutline said, ‘It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.’”
ASKED HOW HE KEPT from getting hurt, Rose said, “You just do it. There is no technique. You can’t practice it unless you have a swimming pool and I never had a swimming pool. You can’t think about it. Just react. Just slide.
“I don’t recommend sliding into first base head first unless you are trying to avoid a tag,” he said. “And I don’t recommend sliding into home head first unless you are avoiding a tag. Don’t slide head first into that catching gear.”
There are some critics who believe the Reds organization concentrates too much on the past, The Big Red Machine, The Great Eight, and continually trot them out for different events to spike attendance.
ROSE ADDRESSED THAT SATURDY before the Reds played to a SRO crowd for a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“The critics say to the Reds, ‘Why don’t they quit living in the past?,’” said Rose. “Well, the Cincinnati Reds past is rich. They have a rich history. Like when Johnny Bench goes somewhere, he is, “Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds.’ And if that don’t make any sense, go to hell.”
And that’s vintage Pete Rose, diving head first into second base, third base and life.