CINCINNATI — The Reds’ locker room was stuffed with reporters. Ron Oester sat by his locker, watching the fuss. He sipped a postgame beer.
“This,” he said, nodding, “is what it was like when Pete first got in trouble.”
He shook his head. He looked down. “Pete should be here to see this.”
A World Series is more than seven baseball games. It is a link to Octobers past, and the city it graces usually will spare no effort to trot out its baseball tradition. Were we in St. Louis this week, Stan Musial’s statue would open the TV broadcasts. Were we in Detroit, Al Kaline might draw a bigger crowd than Moses. Yankee Stadium? The ghosts of Ruth and Gehrig would get no rest.
Pete Rose, on the other hand, is getting plenty of rest. And no attention. He is inside a prison in Marion, Ill., watching this World Series on a television set, watching his former team stun the baseball world by grabbing a 2-0 lead over the mighty Oakland Atheltics. Once, the idea of a Reds’ World Series without Rose — either playing, managing or walking around like a living legend — well, that idea made as much sense as a Disneyland without Mickey Mouse.
But it is happening now, this week. As the city grows Reds- hot, Rose remains a non-entity, a taboo — or at least tabled — topic. There are no banners. No retired jerseys. No statues. And bigger than the prison sentence, bigger than the tax fraud, bigger than the gambling addiction that dragged him down by his fingernails, this might be Rose’s worst nightmare: The Reds are nearing the end of the rainbow. And you have to look hard to find anyone talking about old No. 14. They talked baseball, not gambling
Oester is an exception. He wants Rose remembered. As a kid who grew up in this town, a kid who once had his favorite book, “The Pete Rose Story,” signed by the man himself, a kid who played alongside Rose briefly and later played for him during Rose’s managerial stint, Oester is not ashamed to invoke his name, as some seem to be.
“Pete should be here throwing out the first ball,” Oester said of this Fall Classic, Cincinnati’s first without Rose since 1961. “You talk about Reds baseball and you can’t not talk about Pete Rose. He’s the greatest to ever play here. . . .
“Hey, he made a mistake. So what? If you looked into the closets of 99 percent of the guys in this room, you’d find something, I guarantee you.’
He sighed and returned to his beer. When Rose was here, he and Oester would talk every day about the games they had seen on TV. Both had satellite dishes. Both would go home at night at stay up until 3 or 4 a.m., flicking the channels. “I’d see some great play and I’d say to myself, ‘Pete is gonna ask me about that one tomorrow.’ It was like studying for a test. And sure enough, he’d ask.”
But just as they would always talk baseball, they would never talk about Rose’s problem. Gambling. Nobody wanted to bring it up. Not even Rose’s friends, who often knew its terrible extent.
Ray Knight, who played here for years, considers himself Rose’s friend. But he has not contacted Rose during his troubles. “If you know Pete, you know he wants to deal with this by himself,” Knight said. “He doesn’t want outside advice.
“I was walking around Cincinnati today, going to the old places we used to go to — restaurants, stores, a golf course. And everyone asked me about Pete. A lot of them asked if I knew he was gambling. And I said absolutely. But we never talked about it. I can’t explain. You just didn’t do that with Pete.” Always, the game goes on
Back in the 70’s, Rose was all over the World Series. There is that famous picture of him sliding headfirst into third in the 1975 classic against Boston. Back in 1972 — the first time the Reds met the A’s — Cincinnati fell behind three games to one. Rose led off Game 5 with a home run, and the Reds won that game and the next.
So he would have loved this sudden October spunk by his old team, guys like Joe Oliver, seven years in the minor leagues, getting the winning hit in his first at-bat against the famous Dennis Eckersley. And Rob Dibble, who broke in under Rose, throwing lighting — 100 m.p.h. fastballs — that left Oakland batters blinking.
He would have loved it. But he can only watch it. And wonder. When he managed this team, he could never muster the Reds past second place. Rose overworked his pitchers and wasn’t much on discipline. He treated players the way he probably wanted to be treated, which was to be left alone. He failed to realize not everyone thinks like Pete Rose.
Perhaps, watching this series on a prison TV set, he realizes it now. His old teammates are all over the place: Johnny Bench is here, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey. In fact, the Reds are wearing Griffey’s number, 30, because he was part of this team when the season began. And, of course, there is no stigma in honoring Ken Griffey.
As for Rose? The only visible reminder is the street sign outside the stadium: “Pete Rose Way.” Funny. It was the Pete Rose Way that got him where he is right now.
Back in the 1975 Series, in the drama-drenched Game 6, Rose came to bat in extra innings with the crowd roaring. He grinned at Boston catcher Carlton Fisk. “This is a hell of game, ain’t it?”
Sure is. It has even, beyond his wildest imagination, managed to go on without him.