Saturday, June 15, 2013

Pete Rose Still Swings

Pete Rose hits.

Thirty-five years after he gave Joe DiMaggio's streak a serious run, the Hit King contends 56 is reachable.

Twenty-seven years after he smacked his last hit — the record 4,256th — Rose adds up his production against the greatest pitchers.

Thirty-seven years after sparking Cincinnati to its dynastic sweep of the Yankees, Charlie Hustle calls those Reds tops in entertainment.

Pete is plugged in, period. He might be 72. He might be three decades removed from capturing three world titles, three batting crowns, 17 All-Star honors, a National League MVP trophy and a World Series MVP award. But he's still the Hit King.

He still has it. It's something that draws fans to Mandalay Bay's sports memorabilia shop in Las Vegas. Two of those Pete partisans are Tommy Tutt and I — a couple of bald buddies having a ball recently with their idol.

Here's how deeply Rose affected my teen years. As he closed in on 1,500 hits in 1970, I kept a daily total on acetate on my bedroom wall. Talk about obsessed.

Seven years later, as the Reds reigned as world champs, Rose spent generous minutes talking to a cub reporter  — me   in their clubhouse at Houston's Astrodome. I was spellbound. 

Now here we were, Tutt and Fox, pitching questions to the Hit King:

The streak. Since your 44 straight in 1978, no one has come as close to DiMaggio's 56. Kostya Kennedy devoted a book to it — "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports." Is it truly the record no one will break?

Rose: "It's not untouchable. Here are two records that no one will break: Cy Young's 511 wins and Johnny Vander Meer's two straight no-hitters. I mean, you'd have to throw three straight to break that. Forget it.

"But 56 straight? You'd need a little bit of luck for two months, but it could be done. Guys like Ichiro (Suzuki of the Yankees) and (the Angels' Mike) Trout could do it. Then there's (Detroit's Miguel) Cabrera, who had the Triple Crown last year. You saying he can't do that? I had seven streaks of 20 or more, so I know."

Hits: Who were the toughest pitchers to figure out?

Rose: "The greatest pitcher I ever faced was Sandy Koufax. A guy recently texted me my stats against the top pitchers. I had 64 hits against Phil Niekro. Those were my most against one guy. I hit .308 against Bob Gibson. Here are my other stats: 60 for 177 against Don Sutton, 42 for 142 against Tom Seaver, 42 for 138 against Gaylord Perry, 42 for 123 against Juan Marichal, 17 for 32 against Warren Spahn."

The Big Red Machine: Owning the coolest nickname of any monster team since Murderers' Row, the Reds of Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez reamed rivals in the mid-1970s. How do you rank them among all-time teams?

Rose: "I don't want to rank us. But we were definitely the most entertaining team in history. Just take this point: We were the only team with a white Hall of Famer in Bench, a black Hall of Famer in Morgan, a Latino Hall of Famer in Perez and a Hall of Fame manager in Sparky Anderson.

"Sparky was the best, and I played for 12 managers. Sparky was the best, but I was the smartest because I played for myself."

That was during Rose's 1984-86 run as player-manager with the Reds. He lasted four more years as their skipper before Major League Baseball bounced him for gambling.

That betting side sure doesn't bother Tommy and me, especially on this day living it up in Vegas.

We simply see Rose as a Hall of Famer, exactly what Kennedy calls him in "56."

Bucky Fox is an author and editor in Southern California.