GRANDSTANDING COULNM: Meeting the Hit King

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — I have been fortunate through my years in sports, even after growing up in the suburbs north of Detroit and living an adult life in Albuquerque, to have met and interviewed many of sports’ greats.

Dropping names here, to set the stage — and I still have their words on cassette tape — I have had the opportunity chat with football great Jim Kelly, former NHL star Garry Unger, pro basketball (ABA and NBA) great George Gervin, and at least a handful of baseball greats, among them Bob Feller, Maury Wills, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Steve Garvey and Ferguson Jenkins.

Last month, in Las Vegas, I met another sports great… a god to me: Pete Rose.

Yeah, I know many don’t consider Rose a Hall of Famer because his gambled. But here’s my rationale: He was accused of gambling when he was a manager — and nobody ever said he was a Hall of fame manager. But he was a Hall of Fame player. Then there’s the logic that says even if he was betting, he surely only bet on his own team.

That said, for my money, he was one of the all-time greats…. “Charlie Hustle.”

I knew Rose spends a lot of time in Sin City, so I went online to see what days, times and places he’d be that intersected with our three nights there. I tracked him down at the MGM Grand, on The Strip — to me, another world.

There was a room almost dedicated to him, although there were expensive items from show biz and sports stars, including autographed guitars … but I was only there to see Pete, the Hit King. I heard the spiel on the pricing; I chose to get an autographed photo — the one when he broke Ty Cobb’s hit record, with then-Padre Steve Garvey in the background — and paid $100 for that and what turned out to be almost 15 minutes with Rose.

It was deemed OK for me to record our time together, so here are some snippets … (Listening to the recording, I found I talked too much!)

When he asked me what my name was and how he should sign the ball — no, Gary, not Carl — I suggested he add, “I belong in the Hall of Fame.”

He declined: “Everybody knows that,” he said.

I told him that back in the day, when I played slow-pitch softball, I always wore the number 14.

That’s when I learned he wasn’t always wearing 14: “In the minor leagues, I was No. 11. And when I went to spring training for the first time with the Reds, they gave me 27. I wore 27 all through spring training until two hours before the first game. Then they gave me No. 14.”

After I mentioned that Maury Wills had visited my baseball room, Rose lauded over his talents and noted that Wills didn’t become a switch-hitter until he turned 30.

I asked Rose how “this gig” was going.

“We do this 20 days a month,” Rose said. “I was telling the last two guys, this is the only city where this gig works. And it’s strictly because as you know, or may not know, every three days thousands and thousands (visit). Do you know how many people visited Vegas last year? Forty. million.” (It was even more than that: The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Bureau numbers show more than 41 million visitors annually for the past five years.)

“Can you name them?” I asked, with Rose chuckling in response. “That’s a lot of people.”

Then I asked what became of his short-lived TV show, with his much-younger and very attractive wife.

“You know, that was kinda fun to do but it was the wrong network,” he said. “They should have concentrated more on my fiancée than me, because TLC is a women’s network. They don’t want to see me. One of the best episodes we did — that they didn’t show — was when my girl got a breast reduction. They didn’t put that episode on — it was the funniest episode we had.”

“Let’s get back to baseball,” I said, changing lanes, and asking if he felt the Hall of Fame has become diluted.

“Yeah. Let me tell you something; if you’re a guy that’s an internet guy, when you get home tonight, and you’ve got nothing to do, look up Alan Trammell’s stats. Then, look up Steve Garvey’s stats: His stats are twice as good as Trammell’s, and they passed him up for Trammell.”

When I had time to check the numbers, Rose was right on all accounts: Although Trammell played one more season (20) than Garvey, Garvey had 234 more hits, 87 more home runs, 305 more RBIs and a 10-6 lead in all-star game appearances. Could Trammell’s 1984 World Series MVP Award really out-weighed all that? And the Tigers’ 1984 championship came at the expense of Garvey and the San Diego Padres.

“I think it’s safe to say Steve Garvey was the best player on a good team,” Rose said. “Was he the best player on the Dodger team? They had Cey and Russell and they had Lopes, but Garvey was the best player on that team. And usually when there’s a best player on a real good team, you usually get consideration for the Hall of Fame.” (Garvey never exceeded 37 percent of the HOF voters; 75 percent is needed.)

“I’m not saying Trammell isn’t a good player, but not Hall of Fame worthy. If Trammell’s a Hall of Famer, then so is (former Reds teammate) Davey Concepcion. … Bill Mazeroski. Harold Baines?”

Rose agreed that Derek Jeter should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer next year: “He got 3,500 hits.”

Rose said he doesn’t get into all that “stats-bleep.

“You know what I like to do? I like a guy that scores runs and wins games,” he said. “Because in baseball, you want to do both, but not many do. You either want to knock in runs or score runs. … In my case, I led off most of my career.

“I like the DH because I think it’s obvious the DH adds more runs to the game … and if you add more runs, you add more excitement for the fans.”

After a short discussion about the new Las Vegas Aviators out-drawing the Miami Marlins, we got down to brass tacks.

“You seem like a pretty intelligent baseball guy, OK,” he told me. “Let me ask you one question: What makes a good manager? There’s one thing that makes a good manager.”

My first reply that Casey Stengel once said a good manager was one who could keep the five guys that like you away from the 20 guys that hate you, then I opted for something I often say: The secret to success in baseball (and business) is putting people in position to succeed.

“You’re right,” he said. “But do you know any great manager who had horse-bleep players? The answer’s no. What makes a good manager is good players: Good players that play good, not good players that play mediocre.

“I played for 12 managers. (Sparky Anderson) is the best I’ve been around. Why? Because he won the most games. But 2, he was the most street-smart guy I’ve ever been around. Not book smart.”

Who belongs in the Hall of Fame that we haven’t talked about, I wanted to know.

“He played for me, played against me: Dave Parker. Look at his stats: Almost 2,900 hits (2,712 in fact), world champion (1979 with the Pirates, 1989 with the A’s), Gold-Glover (three times), batting champion (’77, ’78), good base-runner, team leader … and he got caught with cocaine, that’s why he’s not in the Hall of Fame.”

A few minutes later, our chat was over. We posed for the adjoining photo, I grabbed my autographed 8×10 and headed back to the Red Roof Inn on Paradise Blvd.

It had been, indeed, a memorable day.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame won’t add Pete Rose to its building, but he’s memorialized outside the Great American Ballpark in his hometown of Cincinnati.

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