I never saw a man enjoy his work more than Pete Rose. He played every game like he'd been let out of solitary confinement for the day. He didn't read books, never went to college and was unfit for cocktail parties. He was 99-44/100 percent baseball, from that butcher-block head to his endlessly tapping feet.
He would sprint to first on walks, slide face-first into second and slam baseballs into the AstroTurf on third outs.
He could compute his average on the way to first. He knew which were strike umps, ball umps, high umps, low umps, hitters' umps and pitchers' umps. Rose even knew which ground crews were bunt-friendly.
"He thinks about baseball day and night," Sparky Anderson once said of him. "He can't sit five minutes in a chair and talk to you about something else. He'll get up. Baseball is all he thinks about. He'll never leave the game."
Instead, the game left him. Banned from baseball in 1989 for gambling on it, there was never a crueler punishment devised for one person. It was like taking beer from Norm or mirrors from Demi Moore.
Which makes this Saturday night in Cincinnati that much more delicious for him.
Rose has been granted one evening's pardon by MLB commissioner Bud Selig to re-create base knock No. 4192, the one that made him the undisputed hit king. It will be 25 years to the day at Great American Ball Park. And it will be the first time he's stepped foot on a Reds infield in 21 years, a kind of solitary confinement in itself.
Naturally, a lot of cranky dandruff collections have their boxers in a wad about it.
"When the keeper of the Rules does not enforce the Rules, there are no Rules," former commissioner Fay Vincent e-mailed the NY Post. "...I totally disagree with the Selig position. Either enforce the Rules or reinstate him. ... I do not believe Selig wants to bring Rose back. But he wants to be loved in Cincinnati."
I called Rose at the rather sad job he has now -- signing baseballs at the Field of Dreams souvenir store at the Caesar's Palace shops five hours a day. (For $357 you can get a baseball signed with "I'm sorry I bet on baseball.")
Who else but Pete could turn shame into shekels?
"I'm so excited. Just to be able to circle the base paths will be great. ... They've sold 40,000 tickets, I hear. For a game with Pittsburgh!"
"Fay Vincent's never had a nice thing to say about me in his whole life," says Rose, now 69 and a resident of Sherman Oaks, Calif. "That's fine with me. But he's bashing the commissioner. And when you bash the commissioner, you bash baseball. I would never bash baseball."
He must want to. Compared to what so many cheats have done to the game -- paging Roger Clemens -- Rose's punishment is so many exits past fair it's nearly a crime itself. That one of the top five hitters in baseball history has to come on hands and knees to a city he made famous, to a team he led to six World Series, has to show up like some kind of work-release inmate to celebrate one of the greatest nights in baseball history -- a night he created -- is sickening.
And yet Rose is joyful.
"I'm so excited. Just to be able to circle the base paths will be great," he says. "I have to thank commissioner Selig and [Reds owner] Bob Castellini for the OK. They've sold 40,000 tickets, I hear. For a game with Pittsburgh!"
Oh, yeah, Rose still has a healthy pride in what he did with a baseball bat. He should. Do you realize the closest man to breaking his record -- Derek Jeter -- is still 1,358 hits behind him? That's nearly seven more 200-hit seasons. He's had only seven in his whole career, plus he'd be 43.
"Man, those first 3,000 aren't easy, but they're nothing compared to those last 1,000," Rose says. "You don't feel at 41 like you did at 31. The guy they're trying to sell to pass me is Jeter, but if you're gonna catch me, you can't be having years like this year [Jeter is hitting .262]."
And don't even get him started on Ichiro, who trails Rose by more than 2,000 hits.
"Do you realize that Ichiro has had three or four seasons where about 27, 28 percent of his hits are infield hits? The guy has to be the luckiest guy in the history of the world to get that many infield hits!"
Q: Ichiro had 1,278 hits in Japan. Should those count?
"OK, you gonna let me go over to Japan and play for five or six years? Nothing against Japanese baseball, but it's basically Triple-A ball."
Fires well lit, Rose returns to Cincinnati to relish that moment a quarter century ago. That night, after the hit, the standing ovation lasted six minutes, then seven, then eight. All the celebrators and congratulators and backslappers fell away until Rose was just standing there, alone on first base, washing in the goose-bump noise. At nine, it finally got to him and he began weeping.
For those of us who knew him, it was like seeing an Easter Island statue break down.
"Only time I was on a baseball field I didn't know what to do," he remembers. "I started thinking about everybody that was responsible for me standing there that were gone now. Little League coaches, my uncle who signed me, my father who mentored me. I looked up at the sky and saw my father and I lost it."
That night, his son Ty (after Cobb), was 11 months old. Saturday night, he'll be 25, and 6-foot-5.
And Ty's not the only one who's changed.
"I think it's made me a better man, admitting it," Rose has decided. "I was absolutely wrong. I wish I could change it, but I can't."
What, and quit retail?
"Believe me, I would give this gig up in a heartbeat to be back in the wonderful world of baseball."
Saturday night, he can at least pretend.
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