The distinctions in the Pete Rose narrative are pronounced. There's the pedal-to-the-metal, Ray Fosse-slamming, Cobb-passing, Pete Jr.-hugging monument to hit collecting and winning, contrasted with the forlorn, post-1989 Pete who is perpetually banging on a locked door no one answers. That Rose spent five years in a federal prison camp for tax evasion in 1991, absorbed a grilling from Jim Gray in front of national television cameras at the All-Century celebration in Atlanta in 1999 and finally admitted to betting on baseball in a 2004 interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson after he swore up and down for 15 years that it had never happened.
Non-sports fans who watch TLC on cable might think of the Pete Rose who starred in the short-lived reality show "Hits & Mrs." Rose says he enjoyed that experience, but in true Pete style, he thinks viewers would have been better served if the plot had focused less on baseball and more on his fiancée Kiana Kim's breast reduction surgery.
Me? I'll always remember him as the first big league manager I ever covered. I was there when his descent into baseball oblivion began 2½ decades ago in Plant City, Florida, the winter strawberry capital of the world and, at the time, the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds. The fall reached bottom 25 years ago this Sunday, on Aug. 24, 1989, when baseball banned him for life. The suspension was accompanied by an apology from Rose and a chance to apply for reinstatement in a year.
I WAS IN MY SECOND year as Reds beat writer for The Cincinnati Post that summer, and I was already well-acquainted with Pete's flair for attracting attention in colorful ways. The most indelible moment from the first season came on April 30, 1988, the night Pete got into an argument with umpire Dave Pallone and responded to an inadvertent scratch in the face with a body block that produced a 30-day suspension. Coins and batteries rained down from the stands, and radio broadcasters Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall were summoned to the commissioner's office and chastised for their role in inflaming the tension. I remember thinking, "I'll never see a crazier story than this."
The series of events the next spring quickly disabused me of that notion.
Shortly before the arrival of pitchers and catchers, Rose told the trainers, the clubbies and his coaching staff that he would be leaving camp in Plant City for a day or two. At the same time, general manager Murray Cook received a phone call from the commissioner's office with a strangely cryptic request.
"They said, 'We're calling Pete to New York for questioning. Don't tell anyone where he is,'" Cook recalls. "The team was reporting the next day, and I was supposed to tell the press that I don't know where Pete is? I always thought that was a bit humorous. As it turns out, by the time Pete got to New York, everybody knew where he was. The media was there en masse."
After four straight second-place finishes in the National League West, the Reds were a trendy preseason pick in 1989. But there were ominous signs as they tried to balance winning with small-market economic constraints. Outfielder Kal Daniels left camp in a contract dispute that was settled in the parking lot at the Plant City complex when owner Marge Schott flipped a coin to determine his financial fate. It came up tails, and Marge splurged to give Daniels $325,000 instead of $300,000.