Growing up and loving baseball, I remember having near complete admiration for the daring exploits of the Big Red Machine and particularly “Charlie Hustle” – Pete Rose. I still remember reading a story where Rose made a comment that showed why the guy was such a competitor.
Pete said that maybe a dozen or twenty times during the long major league season, he would come to bat late in a game with no chance that his appearance at the plate could help decide the game one way or the other. In effect, the contest was over. One team or the other – the Reds or their opponent – were too far ahead to think that a comeback was possible. Rose said in such situation he went to the plate determined not to go through the motions on the way to a shower and a steak, but he went to bat determined to get a hit. His logic was superb. The other team was going through the motions. The pitcher was running out the clock, not exerting himself and certainly not bringing his best stuff to the contest. It was a perfect time, in the mind of the hyper-competitive Pete Rose, to add another base hit. Over the course of a long season, Rose knew, a handful of hits can mean the difference between a .280 average and hitting .300. Rose never gave in. Every at bat mattered even if the game wasn’t on the line. I loved that.
Then came the betting, the suspension, the ban, the fact that the best singles hitter of all time, with the all-time record for base hits, won’t make the Hall of Fame because he committed the original sin of baseball – he bet on games. End of innocence. At that moment, I lost the sense that the game was pure. I lost the innocence of a real fan.
The New York Times writer Alan Schwarz had a great piece recently on his own loss of sports innocence – it involved a long-ago Mets trade – and then on Sunday the paper offered fans a chance to comment on when the innocence ended for them. Most, like my Pete Rose case, involved the recognition that things aren’t what they appeared to be, that loyalty knows no home field in sports, that greed, pride and even cheating are more common than we ever want to admit. Our innocence blinds us to reality until one telling moment when it doesn’t.
My favorite from the fans who responded to the Times article was the guy who wrote this: “I grew up in the Chicago area. It was when the Cubs traded Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. Who is Ernie Broglio you say? Exactly.”
Ernie Broglio, by the way, had a respectable 77-74 record as a pitcher in nine seasons, but, hey, he wasn’t Lou Brock. End of innocence.
OK, I know, most sports heroes aren’t. They are all human. It’s not right to hold them to such high standards. There are few role models, few Henry Aarons or Harmon Killebrews. But, at its best, sport is about dreams and fantasy and hope that miracles can still happen. Maybe it’s naive innocence to believe it, but we do. I don’t want to dislike Pete Rose, but he had it all Charlie Hustle did, but it apparently wasn’t enough. I wanted to believe it was. We all do. We wanted to believe that innocence could triumph over greed and cheating. I wanted to believe that Pete was just what he seemed to be. Then couldn’t.
It’s human nature to have such beliefs. It’s human nature to hurt when they end. Baseball – and sports for that matter – in a messy, contentious, nasty, conflicted world, should be the proving ground for innocence, but it isn’t. There is always a Rose or an Ernie Broglio. Say it ain’t so, Joe. Get some class, Tiger, or at least some self awareness. Even baseball, the perfect game, can break your heart. Innocence can be thrown out stretching a double.
I didn’t suffer the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn or the Colts loading up the moving vans and vanishing in the night to Indianapolis, of all places, but Charlie Hustle snuffed out my innocence candle all the same. I still love baseball. I’m still in awe of the greatest players and the history of the game. I see a kid playing catch with a dad and think, this is the game. I just wish that kid, as he is bound to do, will never reach his moment when it changes. His innocence will end, it always does, and with it a little magic. Maybe that is as it must be with all things, even perfect games played in the sunshine on grass. I just wish Pete hadn’t made those silly bets and that I could get choked up watching him enter the Hall. It won’t ever – ever – happen and there is no innocence in that.