Want to feel old? Pete Rose just turned sixty-eight. Want to feel young? Talk baseball with Pete Rose. The name of the All-Time Hits Leader mostly inspires either derision or pity. He’s an American symbol of self-destruction and is certainly in the Hall of Fame of athletes who plummeted from our good grace.
But Pete Rose as symbol has obscured, if not smashed, the Pete Rose who knows and loves the game with the joy of an eleven-year-old breaking in a new mitt. For younger fans who know Rose only from uncomfortable interviews, meet the man who never stopped loving the game.
Q: Let’s talk A-Rod.
Pete Rose: You know A-Rod’s a friend of mine, and I have to believe he’s the best player in baseball, and if you were going to ask me would I vote for what he’s accomplished for the Hall of Fame, yes, I would. And I was very disappointed when I found out he took steroids in 2001, 2002, and 2003 because I thought if any guy is clean, it was him and Ken Griffey Jr. Now, I guess we’ll have to concentrate on Ken Griffey Jr. But in defense of A-Rod, I just don’t think it’s really fair why his name would come out of the 104 names.
Q: I’ve always had a problem with the fact that when it comes to the punishment time and the media time, all the attention is focused on the player, and there’s never any look about the front office, management, and how the steroids actually get in the locker room in the first place.
Rose:Well, I think everybody is guilty. Baseball made a decision, I believe, that the way to bring people back to the ballpark was to create the “long ball.” If you analyze all these new stadiums, with the exception of San Diego, they’re all “fan boxes,” as we call them. I never thought I’d ever get on a soapbox and defend pitchers, but we don’t do anything to help pitching today. We water down the stats, we juice up the ball, we make the ballpark small, and umpires won’t call strikes. So, what the hell chance today does the pitcher have pitching?
Q: Who’s the toughest pitcher you ever faced, and who is the most talented teammate you ever had?
Rose: The second one is easy, and I had some great ones. I had the best catcher in the history of baseball, Johnny Bench, probably the best second basemen in the history of baseball, Joe Morgan, but without a doubt, the most talented player I ever got to play with was Mike Schmidt, OK?
I believe the greatest pitcher I ever faced was Juan Marichal. And the best competitor I ever faced was Bob Gibson. And now that I’ve had time to analyze it, I was 10-for-59 off Sandy Koufax. So, that’s not very good. We used to have a road trip. Dave, think about this road trip. We’d go to Los Angeles and play Koufax and Drysdale. Then, we’d go to San Francisco and play Marichal and Gaylord Perry. Then, we’d stop in St. Louis on the way home and face Gibson and Carlton. That’s nine games in which you face six Hall of Fame pitchers. That’s a rough road trip.
Now, I got seventy-seven hits off of Phil Niekro, and I got thirty-four, I believe, off his brother, Joe. So, think about that. I got a fortieth of all my hits off the Niekro family. If she’d had five boys, I’d have got 5,000 hits.
Q: The Hall of Fame: Do you think that there’s a chance of it actually happening?
Rose: Well, you know, I have no control of that. I don’t know if the steroid situation helps me, hurts me, or keeps me the same. It’s a different case, but I’m going on twenty years of being suspended, and I would just like somewhere along the line to be given a second chance to prove that I’m not a bad guy. Even the guy that shot the Pope got off.
Dave Zirin is the author of the recently published “A People’s History of Sports in the United States.”