I never realized how many Bill Heinz stories I love until I read The Top of His Game. Some I would have loved earlier if I’d known about them or hadn’t been too lazy to root around for them in the library. But I didn’t, even though I sit here and tell you he was a friend and an inspiration to me. All I can do now is savor what he wrote and suggest that for openers you too might love his beautifully crafted 850-word newspaper columns on Beau Jack buying hats—”Ah want three. Ah want one for every suit”—as he waits to fight in Madison Square Garden, and on Babe Ruth, in his farewell to Yankee Stadium, stepping “into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any man.”
Bill, demanding craftsman that he was, thought “Death of a Racehorse” was the only one of his columns worth saving. But I’m glad his ode to Toughie Brasuhn, the Roller Derby queen, made it into the new collection because I doubt there’s a newspaper sports columnist in America today who’d be given the freedom to write about such an off-the-wall subject. And then there are the columns he constructed entirely of dialogue, harbingers of his best magazine work and even more so of The Professional. They weren’t written off the news or because they were on a subject that got a lot of hits. (Personally, I think only baseball players should worry about hits.) Heinz used dialogue as a device because it was a change of pace and, let’s be honest here, because he was trying to add to his authorial toolbox. So we get boxing guys and fight guys talking and Heinz listening without, he said, taking notes. Truman Capote made the same claim when he wrote the classic In Cold Blood, boasting that he could recall hours of conversation word for word. Somehow I believe Heinz more than I do Capote. I believe the distinct voices he captured on paper, and the oddball theories his largely anonymous characters spout, and the exotic world that rises up before the reader as a result.
It’s surprising how little time Heinz spent as a sports columnist—less than three years and then the Sun folded in 1950 and he took a giant step to full-time magazine freelancing. Judging by the contents of The Top of His Game, there wasn’t a magazine that wasn’t happy to have him—Life, Look, Colliers, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Sport, True, even Cosmopolitan. Granted, it wasn’t Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo and Heinz wasn’t writing about sex and the single girl. But he was writing about boxing and a boxer’s wife for a distinctly female audience, and he delivered pieces that have stood the test of time.
“Down in Los Angeles,” says Garry Schumacher, who was a New York baseball writer for 30 years and is now assistant to Horace Stoneham, president of the San Francisco Giants, “they think Duke Snider is the best center fielder the Dodgers ever had. They forget Pete Reiser. The Yankees think Mickey Mantle is something new. They forget Reiser, too.”
Maybe Pete Reiser was the purest ballplayer of all time. I don’t know. There is no exact way of measuring such a thing, but when a man of incomparable skills, with full knowledge of what he is doing, destroys those skills and puts his life on the line in the pursuit of his endeavor as no other man in his game ever has, perhaps he is the truest of them all.
“Is Pete Reiser there?” I said on the phone.
This was last season, in Kokomo. Kokomo has a population of about 50,000 and a ball club, now affiliated with Los Angeles and called the Dodgers, in the Class D Midwest League. Class D is the bottom of the barrel of organized baseball, and this was the second season that Pete Reiser had managed Kokomo.
“He’s not here right now,” the woman’s voice on the phone said. “The team played a double-header yesterday in Dubuque, and they didn’t get in on the bus until 4:30 this morning. Pete just got up a few minutes ago and he had to go to the doctor’s.”
PEOPLE HATE HIM. Boy, wow, do they hate him. At first they loved him, and then they were confused by him, and then they were irritated by him, and now they straight-up loathe.
More often than not, the mention of Alex Rodriguez in polite company triggers one of a spectrum of deeply conditioned responses. Pained ugh. Guttural groan. Exaggerated eye roll. Hundreds of baseball players have been caught using steroids, including some of the game’s best-known and most beloved names, but somehow Alex Rodriguez has become the steroid era’s Lord Voldemort. Ryan Braun? Won an MVP, got busted for steroids, twice, called the tester an anti-Semite, lied his testes off, made chumps of his best friends, including Aaron Rodgers, and still doesn’t inspire a scintilla of the ill will that follows Rodriguez around like a nuclear cloud.
Schadenfreude is part of the reason. Rodriguez was born with an embarrassment of physical riches — power, vision, energy, size, speed — and seemed designed specifically for immortality, as if assembled in some celestial workshop by baseball angels and the artists at Marvel Comics. He then had the annoyingly immense good fortune to come of age at the exact moment baseball contracts were primed to explode. Months after he was old enough to rent a car he signed a contract worth $252 million. Seven years later: another deal worth $275 million. Add to that windfall another $500 million worth of handsome, and people were just waiting. Fans will root for a megarich athlete who’s also ridiculously handsome (body by Rodin, skin like melted butterscotch, eyes of weaponized hazelness), but the minute he stumbles, just ask Tom Brady, they’ll stand in line to kick him in his spongy balls.
Rodriguez’s defenders (and employees) are quick to say: Sheesh, the guy didn’t murder anybody. But he did. A-Rod murdered Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod brutally kidnapped and replaced the virginal, bilingual, biracial boy wonder, the chubby-cheeked phenom with nothing but upside. A-Rod killed the radio star, and his fall from grace disrupted the whole symbology and mythopoesis of what it means to be a superhero athlete in modern America.
Sometimes a story comes along, jumps out at you, and won’t let go. Such was the case last year with Jeremy Collins’ beautifully-rendered memoir piece, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux.” It took a long time for the story to come together for Collins and when I finished my only concern was, “Maybe that’s all he’s got.”
Now comes his latest for SB Nation Longform, “The General Who Never Was,” a profile of the scoundrel Bobby Knight. It’s another beaut–told with precision and care:
What were the obstacles standing in Knight’s way of creating an enduring legacy? It wasn’t complicated. Zero-tolerance? Try common sense. All Knight had to do, in the words of former Indiana Trustee Ray Richardson, was “stop being a jerk. Try being a decent guy.” Or in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, a Hoosier who had seen war: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
In the end, I’m not sure what Knight saw when he looked out into the faithful crowd of fans and followers. Maybe in the blurry smokescreen of self-regard he didn’t see us at all. Not once did he mention the power of reading or wish the high school students in the stands well. Barely once in the onslaught of self-sentiment could he even speak the name of our shared motherland: Indiana, In-dee-anna, Indiana.
Instead, he put his hand up in an oddly formal gesture of farewell and held it there. Just like at Dunn Meadow back in 2000 after he asked everyone to bow their heads and observe a moment of silence in honor of himself and his family.
Never good at goodbye, I shouldn’t have expected more.
My pal Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing and longform editor at SB Nation, has done a stellar job of shepherding young storytellers these past few years. So far–at least to my mind–Collins is his best find, a true breakaway talent. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
I have some friends—Cardinals fans—who went to a game in Yankee Stadium in 2003. During a rain delay a segment of Yanks’ fans in the bleachers began serenading them with the sing-songy chant, “Dar-ryl Kile!… Dar-ryl Kile!” This was about a year after Kile, ace pitcher for the Cardinals, died suddenly in a Chicago hotel room. Now, do I hold this assholery against all Yankees fans, much less all of New York City? Of course not. That’d just be innumerate crap.
But of course we do this all the time: Red Sox fans, you often hear, are loudmouths; Dodgers fans are too distracted to arrive at the game before the fourth inning; Cubs fans are just there for the beer and brats. These are lazy stereotypes, false more often than not; yet places like Deadspin and Grantland and Bloomberg have no problem pushing these clichés as if they were actual think pieces.
The truth is, there are literally millions of Cardinals fans throughout the country—a mix of earnest Midwesterners, shrill dickheads, corny suburban dads, jorts-wearing dudes with rattails, hedge fund managers, soybean farmers, restaurateurs, night-shift nurses, old folks, schoolkids, PhD students, carpool moms, ex-cons, and that one guy who used to live down the street from you. For a sportswriter to think he has a handle on a fan base this big and diverse is so wrong-headed you feel kinda silly pointing it out.
A record producer friend once told me that Check Your Head, the Beastie Boys’ 3rd album, was perfectly realized. That’s stuck with me over the years, the idea of being able to achieve something that lives up to your ambition. In a 1978 Playboy Interview, Bob Dylan said: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.”
I thought of this after reading Jeremy Collins’ terrific story on SB Nation, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux”. As Tom Junod said on Twitter, “Every once in a while, a writer throws everything he’s got into a story. This is one of those stories.”
Sometimes, after I’ve read a good story I feel envious. After reading this piece, though, I felt elevated. It’s clear that Collins spent a long time, years, figuring out how to tell this ambitious, strong and exact story.
Everyone makes mistakes. One of mine is that it took me a long time to appreciate Buehrle, and not just because every time he pitched for the White Sox, I had to listen to Hawk Harrelson sing his praises. I mean, Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round out of some college no one had heard of,2 he almost never hit 90 on the radar gun, and he didn’t strike anyone out. Sure, he reached the major leagues just 14 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow in 1999, but he was never a top prospect. He wasn’t much of a prospect, period. During his first full season in the majors, I fixated on his mere 126 strikeouts in 221 innings far more than on his 16-8 record, 3.29 ERA, or AL-leading 1.066 WHIP. He was a junk-tossing left-hander, and those guys always get figured out eventually.
Only, Buehrle hasn’t gotten figured out, and he’s currently helping fuel the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff hopes. Despite pitching in arguably the AL’s best home run park for hitters for most of his career, he’s produced only one bad season: 2006, the sole year when his ERA+ dropped below 100 and, conveniently if less meaningfully, the only year when he finished with a losing record. He’s been consistently above average without ever being elite. He’s earned a single Cy Young vote just once, in 2005, and the category in which he’s most often led the league is hits allowed, four times.
He’s led the league in hits allowed four times because he throws a lot of innings, and because he gives up a lot of contact. And he gives up a lot of contact because the one thing he does not do is miss bats. After getting called up midseason in 2000, Buehrle struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings, a ratio a tick higher than the league average at the time. He’s posted a below-average strikeout rate every season since, and has struck out 150 batters just once in his career.
The father is here to cheer on his 20-year-old son — a redshirt sophomore for the Gaels. Listed on the Iona roster as Mariano Rivera, the son’s legal name is actually Mariano Rivera III (although most everybody, including dad, refers to him as “Jr.”). Beyond the name and the fact that they both pitch, there are other similarities between the two. There are also many differences, one of which is that the son is a starter — at least while he is in college. “He’s too good to be a reliever at this level,” says Iona head coach Pat Carey.
That’s an assessment the scouts seem to agree with. After Rivera records the third out, the men put down their radar guns and dutifully record the pitch in their notebooks. They offer no expression, but can’t help but to have been impressed by what they’ve seen so far. This is a good lineup that Rivera has set aside in the first, all via strikeout. Seton Hall’s high-powered offense entered the contest averaging 7.8 runs per game. That offense has helped propel them to a 16-4 record and the No. 19 spot in ESPN’s unofficial power rankings going into today’s game. Iona, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, seldom plays a team of this caliber. It is a rare chance for the scouts to see what Rivera can do against a lineup with some punch.
As he makes his way back to the dugout, he avoids eye contact with the scouts, but he is fully aware of their presence.
“Twenty something scouts,” he says. “Most scouts ever in my life. Obviously, it’s in the back of my mind.”
Rivera takes a seat and grabs as much solitude as he can in the cramped Iona dugout. This is hardly out of character for him. Rivera is well liked among this group, and treated like just one of the guys. He is close friends with some teammates, but he tends to set himself apart, and sits alone between innings.
Chad Curtis didn’t tell his lawyer that he’s doing this interview, he admits with a sly smile. Obviously, she’d be angry, because he’s appealing his conviction, and talking to a reporter is likely not in his best interests. But Curtis is still upset that he didn’t get to take the stand at his trial. He sees himself as a man for whom telling the truth trumps calculated self-interest.
That’s why, he believes, he has sat in prison since October on a seven-to-15-year conviction for molesting three teenage girls at the rural Michigan high school where he volunteered. He says he could have taken a misdemeanor plea, served a year and a half in county, and been home with his wife and six kids by now. But he’s an innocent man in his own mind, so he couldn’t bring himself to swear on the Bible — which he quotes frequently and encyclopedically during our two-hour interview at the Harrison Correctional Facility — and admit to a crime he didn’t commit.
As a major league baseball player, he wore a bracelet that said, “What would Jesus do?” Now that he’s a prisoner, he tells me, “Jesus lived the perfect life, and that got him crucified.” By this, he means there’s historical precedent for the harsh judgments of human beings to be 180 degrees wrong, and that he’s in good company.
He asks if I’m familiar with the show Pretty Little Liars. He says he prays daily for his teenage accusers, all of whom had similar athletic builds and All-American good looks. He says all he was doing in that locked, windowless, dungeon-like training room was helping those girls recover from sports injuries. He says he took the same all-out approach to treating sports injuries as he did to playing baseball — “whether it was running into an outfield wall or breaking up a double play.”
As for why the girls thought otherwise, and accused him of touching their rear ends, breasts and, in one case, genitals, he doesn’t want to speculate: “I’ve been really discouraged by how often and how wrong people have assumed my motivations, so I’ll extend them that same courtesy,” he says.
He doesn’t mention that not a single boy testified to having gone down to the trainer’s room for similar treatment.
I met Chris Archer for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on my first night in North Carolina. He showed up with a handsome black man in his 40s, whom he introduced as “Ron Walker, my mentor.” The hostess led us to a booth in the far corner of the room. As we sat down, Archer said, “Wow! This is the same table where I met my father last February.” He meant his biological father, Magnum. Walker had helped facilitate that first-ever meeting between father and son. It did not go well. Archer peppered his father with questions. Why had he never tried to contact his son? That sort of thing. Archer did not like the answers.
By the time his father had left, Archer said, he had already decided, “I had no intention of ever seeing him again. The type of person he was. He had three children with three different women. Zero of which he is in their lives. He couldn’t tell what school his kids went to. I had no intention of trying to change a grown man who didn’t want to be in my life.”
I told Archer that I hadn’t planned to ask him about his biological parents until tomorrow, after we’d gotten to know each other a bit. He smiled and said, “Yeah, I came out throwin’ heat right off the bat.”
When the waiter came to take our order, Archer discussed with Walker what he should eat. Walker suggested fish and steamed broccoli, nothing fried or with butter. One night, before Archer was to pitch a minor league game, he had called Walker and told him he was eating a pizza. Walker said, “You’re eating what? Don’t put that in your body. Spend $30 on something healthy.”
Now, at Outback, Archer said, “He didn’t want me to put regular gas in my high-performance engine. We talk all the time.”
“We always dialogue back and forth,” said Walker. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
We walked between the rows of vines, up and down the steep terraces in the hot sun. Tom’s three Labrador Retrievers romped around us. Big, playful, doofus dogs with their tongues hanging out. He told me their names. “Major, Bandy, Bricks.” I said, “Bricks, like in chimney bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Who’s on first?” He didn’t get it, so I said, “Spell it.” He spelled, “B-R-I-X. It’s French for the sugar content in grapes.”
We stopped at a vine drooping with clusters of grapes. He snipped off a cluster and handed it to me. I held it over my head, like in one of those old paintings of Roman orgies, and ate the small, black, sweet grapes off the cluster. “Delicious,” I said. Tom explained that each variety of grapes had different characteristics that you could only tell by tasting them. That’s why each row was numbered.
I said, “Very good, Thomas. You always did explain things precise.”
“Ly,” he said. “Precise-ly. You’re supposed to be the fucking writer, and you don’t know your grammar.”
“Thank you very much. You know I got a journalism degree from USC.” Irony of ironies! Tom Seaver, trying to impress me.
I said, “Yeah, and I had a better fastball than you.”
But he went on. “I was always like that about pitching. I had to be precise. I couldn’t just mail it in!” Then he began to explain more about his vines, about the cordon and proper height for each vine. I tuned him out and ate my grapes, the juices running down my sweatshirt. He looked at me, annoyed, and said, “Pay attention. I’m gonna give you a fucking lesson.”
“I don’t want a fucking lesson.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m giving you one. Now, if the secondary fruit grows too high, you have to snip it off or else they’ll take energy from the vines.”
I feigned interest. “How high?”
“Each row has to be only to a height of 14.”
“Fourteen what? Inches, feet?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a standard height. Stop asking questions and just listen. This is important, for Chrissakes. If you didn’t talk so much you might learn something. If the vines are too high, you have to trim them.” He reached up with his snips and trimmed a vine.
“Oh, I see. The height of each vine is a template for the row. Your job is to go down the row trimming the tops, to make them conform to the template. I can see how the monotony of this appeals to your precise, fucking methodical nature. It’s therapy for you.”
“Bullshit. You think too much. You always did.”
“I had a better fastball than you.”
“In your dreams.”
“Yeah, and between us we won 311 major league games.”
“Abso-fucking-lutely! I tell everybody that!”
I asked him if he’d still have his vineyards if he hadn’t missed out on today’s big baseball paydays. Tom made more than a million dollars a year only twice in his career. If he were pitching in his prime today, he’d be making $30 million a year.
“I started to lose interest,” he said. “I wanted to go home. I couldn’t do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I’d made that $30 million a year, maybe I’d just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I’d have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego.”
Since his character is part of the story, Rodriguez wanted me to talk to a character witness, and his choice was an odd one: Cynthia, his ex-wife. “You’re going to love her. She’s an amazing lady. I love her to pieces,” he said, “and she’s one of my best friends.”
Cynthia met me in a café in Coconut Grove and then a second time in the elegant though hardly ostentatious home she designed on Biscayne Bay. She’s not just toned but muscular, an attractive, petite blonde with smooth skin and piercing eyes and two bright diamond earrings. She met Rodriguez when he was 21 and she was 22. She wasn’t a sports fan. He told her he played baseball. “That’s great, but what do you really do?” she’d said. Cynthia is a traditional girl from a close-knit, religious family who lived a few blocks from her parents for a time—and she was a college graduate, which impressed Rodriguez. She’d earned a master’s degree in psychology and had practiced as a therapist.
She had every reason in the world to dislike Rodriguez. He’d humiliated her in the press; there were reports of Madonna and Rodriguez together shortly after the birth of their second child. But five years later—they divorced in 2008—she simply said, “I was disappointed.” She still esteems him. In the aftermath of the separation, he was generous and thoughtful. “He really made sure that everything was taken care of,” she told me. “It was a very nurturing process.” For her, that wasn’t an exception. “I saw something in him that I still see in him, and what I see is still very good.”
But she also sees damage. She spooled out the now-familiar story as to its causes. His father left the family when Alex was 10; he lived with his mother and lost touch with his father. The absence of a father made him the man of the house, big pressure for a teenager. “I was in a full sprint to make sure my mother never worked again,” he said.
Rodriguez’s success added to the emotional distortion. “Everything was about growing him as a baseball player,” Cynthia said. “He wasn’t learning anything but how to hit the fastball.
“What happens to everything else? It’s stunted, completely.” Without an authority figure, he listened willy-nilly to the advice of whoever was with him at the time.
“I used to say to Alex, ‘Don’t you just know what to do? Don’t you just have that voice in your head that tells you?’ He said, ‘No. I don’t.’ I think, looking back, he was probably uncomfortable with his place in the world.”
Later, when their marriage was crumbling, Cynthia thought a lot about Rodriguez’s issues. One day, she ran into Cal Ripken, one of his baseball heroes and a friend.
“What is it about Alex that I’m not seeing?” she asked Ripken. “What is it that I don’t get?”
“Cynthia, let me tell you the problem,” he said, and told her a story. “I might be wearing a suit, and Alex will see me and say, ‘Cal, I love your suit. Where did you get that suit?’ Then somebody else might walk in the locker room, and they have a completely different kind of suit on. And Alex might say, ‘Hey, I love your suit.’
“Cynthia, he tries to please everyone. That’s the problem.”
Rodriguez would often be charged with insincerity, but Cynthia didn’t see it that way. “He’s trying to say the right thing, trying to fit in. I would say immature, not insincere.”
Despite being a Dodgers fan, Gould was pulling for the Pirates in the playoffs. “I’m into wishful thinking,” he said. “But the abstraction of rooting for a team, and personalizing it, affects me emotionally, and I don’t want to be affected emotionally by what other people do. Life is not about winning and losing. Even when people talk about luck, there’s a deep part of me that doesn’t believe in it. I believe in timing.”
My conversations with Gould inevitably circle back to sports, reinforcing his resemblance to his character in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming — the father figure who always seems to call at the right time to “discuss the Knicks-Bulls exhibition game” at dizzying length. On October 9, the day after Andy Pafko died, I called Gould for his reaction. “Pafko had the biggest forearms I ever saw. He came up to the Catskill Mountains when I was staying there and hit a softball over the biggest tree in center field. It was breathtaking.” He recounted how thrilling it was when the Cubs traded Pafko to the Dodgers in 1951, and rattled off the other players acquired in the deal: Johnny Schmitz, Wayne Terwilliger, and Rube Walker. “I’d have to look at the roster and tell you who I remember, because I don’t lie. It’s too easy, being inventive and creative, to spin things.”6 He scrambled around for a baseball almanac to verify his claim, but laughed when the only book at arm’s length was The Complete Conversations With God.
Gould so often couches his reminiscences with allusions to sports and sense memories from childhood that his response to whether he had any allegiances to the Brooklyn Nets came as no surprise. “No, none whatsoever,” he said, bluntly. Had the franchise started from scratch and not been a New Jersey transplant,7 would he feel the same way? “What comes to mind is Jell-O,” he continued. “Then I was thinking more in terms of My-T-Fine chocolate pudding, which my mother used to make. She would pour it into little cups and let me clean the pot. That’s Brooklyn to me, that’s home. The Nets? That’s not Brooklyn to me.”
There are 23 large iron lamps affixed to the ceiling. The tints of neon light they throw down into the indoor batting cage, a concrete room tucked deep into the guts of Yankee Stadium, vary according to when they were last smashed out by errant balls and replaced. Under these lights, largely out of sight, Bam Bam (or “Sir Bam Bam” – but we’ll get to that later) is at the pinnacle of the game that promised much, disappointed more, and then came through for him after all. Across the street, the much brighter lights under which he and all that he was supposed to be receded and then disappeared have been leveled, along with the rest of the old Yankee Stadium.
From up close, the blunt crack of a Major Leaguer striking a ball with a bat – even on a tee – will startle almost anyone every single time. Not Bam Bam. He doesn’t even flinch anymore. He watches, and then places yet another ball onto the batting tee for his latest charge to smack into the netting that encases them both.
It has been 24 years since he first arrived at Yankee Stadium; 20 since the Yankees pawned their phenom off to Japan. This is his first time back, the culmination of one of the most interesting journeys in baseball, a bridge from the place baseball was to where it seems headed. His family is in town from Curacao on one of the last days of a season long since lost, with another loss a full seven hours away. But Bam Bam, who wore World Series championship rings on both his middle fingers before changing into a pair of San Francisco Giants shorts and a T-shirt, is mending the mechanical defect in the swing of a 27-year-old backup catcher five at-bats – one hit – into his first big-league call-up.
For Johnson, being in the ownership circle is new in baseball, but not new personally. Johnson sold both his equity stakes in Starbucks Coffee and in the Lakers at least in part to finance joining Guggenheim’s bid. Internally, Johnson did not want to be patronized, the athlete, especially the African-American athlete, who lends his name to a venture and then has little say in its operation. In one of his first meetings with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Johnson convinced the chain to remake its food menu at the Harlem restaurants because while the African-American clientele would purchase coffee like any other consumer, “Black people,” Johnson told Schultz, “don’t eat scones.” It was a small but shrewd example of the different lens Johnson brought to the table.
“I want to show these athletes and entertainers that we can be owners,” Johnson said. “Now, going in with Stan and Mark and Todd has been a great experience, but I want them to respect me, too. And the way you get that respect is to write a check. And not to say they wouldn’t if I didn’t, but the real respect comes from when you’ve got skin in the game. And that’s what it’s been for all my partnerships. Howard Schultz [said] if I didn’t write the check, he wasn’t going to do that deal with Starbucks. Go down the line. [Late Lakers owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss told me, ‘Hey, I love you like a son, but you have to write a check.’
“When you have to write a $50 million check, you have to say, ‘OK, is the investment going to pay off? Is it the right move? Is it the right decision?’ ” Johnson said. “To me, your name is not enough. And I’ll say it because first of all I think that fans react different. The players act different. The players when they’re alone are saying, ‘What? Magic wrote a check?’ So they understand that, and it’s also different for me because I want to make sure I make it right, make sure it goes the way of our strategy. I want to be part of the strategy. I want to be a part of everything. I’ve never not written a check. I want to be invested in the deal. I want everyone to look at me as a real owner and not just some guy who put his name on it.”
Here’s a keeper from Scott Raab. “The Hit King,” originally published in GQ back in 1997 and reprinted here with the author’s permission.
If you grew up in Cleveland, rooting ten, twenty, thirty years for what was then the most drab and futile team in baseball, you loathed Pete Rose for at least three reasons. You despised him for his skill and for his frenzy to win. You scorned him for being born, reared and revered in Cincinnati, a fussy, gooberous river burg, half Kraut, half hillbilly, buried so far downstate that it essentially was, and is, the capital of north Kentucky. Above all you hated him for July 14, 1970, when he scored the winning run in that year’s All-Star Game by maiming the Tribe’s finest rookie in decades, a toothy, well-muscled 23-year-old catcher named Ray Fosse. Fosse was planted a stride or two up the third-base line, blocking the plate; Rose wracked him knee to shoulder at full speed. Bruised, Rose missed three games. Fosse dislocated his entire career.
I didn’t care that this was not a cheap shot, that it was just the way the game is played. I didn’t care that Rose and Fosse had huddled at Rose’s home the night before—the game was in Cincy that year—talking baseball until 3 A.M., or that they kept in touch for years thereafter. I watched season after season as Ray Fosse fought to find his stroke, fought and failed, while Rose and his team became the Big Red Machine. I never forgave Pete Rose.
I never forgave Pete Rose, but on August 1, 1978, I discovered that I had ceased merely to loathe him. Having hit safely in forty-four games straight—second only to DiMaggio’s untouchable fifty-six in 1941—Rose went hitless that summer night. Feeling strangely bereft, I opened The Baseball Encyclopedia to DiMaggio’s name and saw that in ’41 he had been 26, in the heart of his glory. Rose was already a wondrous, ageless 37, and I understood then that this brick-bodied motherfucker would dog me forever. Without quite knowing it, I had come to regard him with that same mixture of emotion inspired in cave dwellers by earthquake and eclipse: terror, awe, powerlessness, and surrender. Beyond explanation or entreaty, he simply was and always could be. Even when he stopped playing, in 1986—he was the Reds’ player-manager then—Rose refused to officially retire, and I fully expected him to climb out of the dugout at any moment, bat in hand.
He never did. In 1989 Rose was tossed out on his ear, eighty-sixed like a drunk who had pissed on the jukebox. I took no pleasure from it, not even relief; whether he bet illegally or bet on baseball or bet on his own team, he was railroaded, denied due process in a vermin-infested, star-chamber investigation. I felt only wariness, certain he would sue and come back, until the almighty IRS, a force beyond even nature, pinched him for failing to report racetrack winnings and income from memorabilia sales. Pete Rose was finally done for. Before his sentencing, he read a statement asking for the court’s mercy—he’d paid the government, plus penalties and interest—his voice choked and quaking, too shamed to lift his head from the page. The judge, a Reds fan, gave him five months, plus a $50,000 fine to cover the cost of his upkeep in the federal prison in—I scarcely could believe it—Marion, Illinois. Ray Fosse’s hometown.
If you’re a Cleveland Indians fan, that’s how it goes: no justice, only irony.
“Lemme tell ya, I love Joe DiMaggio,” Pete Rose says, chugging coffee at four in the afternoon. We’re at a table near the back bar of the Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe. He’s 56, rock hard and proud of it. His jeans are light blue and jock tight; his white ribbed cotton pullover is tucked in at the waist; he has a thick gold chain around one wrist and a battered Rolex around the other. His hair is short, receding—he keeps a ball cap on his head—and bottle-brown. His pugish brow and nose have thickened; the whole face has grown a bit heavier, more coarse; but his eyes, flat brown, still burn, and his voice is the same tough-guy bark. “I went to Vietnam in 1967 just so I could meet Joe DiMaggio. They asked me to go on a goodwill trip. Joe and me went south; the other three guys went north. We had to carry cards that said we were colonels, because if we got captured and we didn’t have a card, we’d be considered spies. I was in awe of this guy. I mean, this guy was one of my heroes. I couldn’t believe I’m ridin’ in helicopters with Joe DiMaggio.”
I try to picture them—the 26-year-old hick, crew-cut and knot-faced, five whole seasons in the Bigs under his belt, and the Yankee Clipper, 53 then, an authentic pinstriped deity, silvering, aquiline, regal—squatting flank to flank in a Huey, skimming treetops, skirting enemy fire, Colonel Charlie Hustle’s incessant chatter ack–acking above the roar of the chopper and the bullets’ whine and the Phrygian silence of Colonel Joltin’ Joe.
Then Pete Rose says this: “I gave Joe DiMaggio a shower one night. I gotta be the only guy in the world ever to give Joe DiMaggio a shower.”
Say WHAT? It is as if an unearthed Hemingway letter recounted a lazy afternoon in Paris when Papa gave Scott Fitzgerald a foot rub.
“We’re down in the Mekong Delta. And it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s a jungle. It’s hot. I mean, it’s so goddamn hot ya can’t sleep. All you can hear goin’ off is boom-BOOM, boom-boom-BOOM. It’s a war out there. And we’re tryin’ to sleep. And Joe says, ‘I can’t sleep.’ He says, ‘I gotta take a shower.'”
Just then a paunchy white-haired man in a beige zippered jacket wanders over to the table, clutching a photo. Rose takes it from him without a glance, signs it, and hands it back. “Thanks, buddy,” Rose says.
The man stands gaping at the glossy in his hands, perplexed. “What’s that number there, uh, forty-two fifty-six?” he asks finally.
“That’s my prison number,” says Rose, poker-faced. Then he returns to the Mekong. “The way you take a shower, you got this big bamboo thing up here, like a pocket.” Rose cups his thick, square hands, lifting his forearms above his head. They are massive, tight as tree trunks, covered with dark hair. “You gotta get up on a chair, and you gotta feed the water. Then you pull a string, and the water comes through. So I’m the feeder; Joe’s takin’ the shower. I’m up on the thing feedin’ the water, and he’s takin’ a shower. Joe DiMaggio.”
Rose grins like a schoolboy. He pushes his cap, black leather with a gator-skin bill, back on his head and clasps his hands behind his neck. A large gold pin dangles from the center of the crown of the cap, formed of two letters: HK, for “Hit King.” I eye those oaken arms and see Ray Fosse somersaulting backward and coming to rest facedown in the dirt, his left shoulder torn from its socket.
“Joe was the most humble guy I ever seen. We got to sit in a meeting of fighter pilots who were goin’ on a mission over North Vietnam. Now you imagine Joe DiMaggio walkin’ in. ‘Hi, I’m Joe DiMaggio, old broken-down ballplayer,’ he used to say. And Joe goes up, and he gets the chalk, and—you know the bombs on the fighter planes? Joe writes ‘Fuck Ho’ on one. And this one guy came back [after the mission] and told Joe, ‘I got an ammunition dump with that thing.’ Joe was happy as he could be. ‘Fuck Ho,‘” Rose repeats, snorting at the memory, shaking his head with delight.
Truly, it is almost more exquisite than I can bear to hear Rose tell about the great DiMaggio in Vietnam. Just then, though, something happens to Pete Rose, something visible and ugly. His face, from brow to chin, turns hard; his eyes go cold; his lips, shrunk to a miser’s frown, barely part as he speaks. “Joe DiMaggio don’t sell bats,” he says, biting off the name. “They’re forty-nine ninety-five. That’s $4,995. Joe thinks everybody’s tryin’ to fuck him.”
Ray Fosse hit .307 in 1970, .307 with good power, and never again came close. He played out his enfeebled string, built a pension, found a broadcast job. DiMaggio, wealthy and still worshiped, is an ice-hearted, reclusive old man. Something worse happened to Pete Rose. Something odd and slow and subtle, something that swallowed him up and took him drifting down into nothingness, into a pale nearly beyond remembrance. Go figure. Had Rose simply croaked or grown doddering, we might have pondered how this brash hayseed colossus bestrode and embodied, like Elvis or Ali, an entire era, spoke with his rough art to the soul of a nation. Instead people hear the name, pause, and say, “Oh, sure. Hasn’t he got a restaurant somewhere?”
The Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe looks like any other edifice in Boca Raton, Florida, which is to say that it has a blank exterior of pinkish tan stucco. To find it, you should know that it is joined to the side of a tannish pink Holiday Inn, whose clover green marquee is one of a very few clues that the entire length of Glades Road from the freeway to the turnpike is not simply a palm-dotted, lizard-infested, pinkish tan strip mall erected to service the needs of an army of frosted-blonde women wielding scarlet talons, silver Lexi, and platinum Visas.
You may be tempted to order the Hall of Fame Chicken Scallopini. Don’t. Irony is no substitute for flair in the kitchen. Stick with a burger.
Your chef is Dave Rose, Pete’s younger brother. Except for Dave’s stringy, shoulder-length hair, the basketball-sized gut beneath his grease-spattered apron, and the slack derangement of his eyes, he and Pete look much alike. Something happened to Dave Rose, too: Vietnam. He didn’t go with DiMaggio.
The staff wears tags with their hometowns printed under their names. Everyone is young, trim, female, and from New York or New Jersey. Pete’s customers are more typical Boca dwellers: fat old men from New York or New Jersey. Pete’s afternoon routine is coffee, the sports page, and banter with the staff about fellatio technique, but today he’s also doing business with Marty. Hoarse, fat, and fiftyish, Marty hails from Boca via New York’s Upper West Side. His business is marketing sports memorabilia.
“I’m gonna throw out a name,” Marty says, “a very, very dear friend of mine. I’ve got very few friends. Marv Shapiro. Dr. Marv Shapiro.”
“Marv Shapiro,” Rose says. “I don’t know who that is.”
“Marv Shapiro is an ear, nose, and throat guy. He has, and I’ve seen it, your jersey from when you broke Cobb’s record.”
Rose shakes his head.
“No?” Marty rasps, his eyes wide. “He swears he paid you twenty-five grand for it. No?”
“I said I was gonna use three jerseys,” says Rose. “I only used one. I used that one right over there. Marge Schott’s got one. I gave one to Barry Halpern for that Ty Cobb bust up there. Did he say he got it from me?”
“Yeah, and he’s not a bullshitter. Great guy. Tremendous guy. Very successful guy.”
“He might be a great guy,” Rose tells Marty, “but he’s a goddamn liar.”
Marty sighs, crestfallen, searching for the right tone, the right words. When he speaks, his voice is heavy with sorrow. “The fraud that is running rampant in this business is perpetuated daily,” he says.
While I wonder if Marge Schott and Barry Halpern know that Rose snookered them—an unworn game jersey is not a game jersey—Marty recovers nicely. “My idea,” he tells Rose, “is to put out something that you authorize. I’ll do all the promoting. I’ll go to every show. It won’t interfere with you at all. To me it would be a privilege to work with you.”
Rose sips the coffee. “I think you could really sell bats with ‘Charlie Hustle,'” he muses. “I’ve never signed ‘Charlie Hustle’ on a bat.” Marty beams at me, radiant, and begins squeaking with joy. “Ooooh, that coy little, sly little fox. He’s Charlie Hustle. They call me ‘Marty Hustle.’ Ooooh. When—not if —he gets put into the Hall of Fame? Right to the moon. He knows it, too. Ooooh, is he good. And he’s young; he could be signing for the next thirty years.”
At the Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe Gift Shop, a signed copy of the black Mizuno that Rose used in the later years of his career goes for only $250. For $75 less, you can get a copy of his old Louisville Slugger. Take it from Pete, though: “I wouldn’t even look at that Louisville. I broke the record with a black Mizuno.”
The record. Rose mentions it often, just as he adds it as a coda to his signature: “4256,” more career hits than anyone in the history of baseball. He harps on this because he knows that despite “4256” he never reached the Yahwehvian stature of Mays and Mantle and, yes, DiMaggio; unbeloved, he was not even, like the demigods Clemente and Kaline, much admired. Not only did Rose lack the supple arrogance of grace, the titanic strength and propulsive speed, even the innocent exuberance of an aw-shucks kid—he had none of the stuff that drops jaws and warms hearts—but also, and crucially, the little boy inside Pete Rose came off as a runtish bully, the outer man as an imperious lout.
What made Rose a great player was an invincible physique coupled with a monomaniacal fervor unseen since the demise of the baseball god most closely linked to him, the shiv-wielding madman whose record Rose chased for twenty-three years: Ty Cobb. Rose grew so obsessed with Cobb that he named his second son, Tyler, for him, and on the night Rose broke the record in 1985, he saw Cobb above the stadium lights, sitting in the clouds. Dead since 1961, Cobb has no bats to hawk, but a huge copper bust of him sits rooted upon a waist-high railing just past the Ballpark Cafe’s hostess station, where the Georgia Peach glares out from eternal captivity into the cafe’s enormous, glassed-in game room. Like Rose, Cobb departed the game not long after he was investigated by the league for wagering on the team he played for and managed. No finding was announced; he simply retired and was in the first group of players voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame at its inception in 1936.
Something far worse happened to Pete Rose. The agreement reached in 1989 with Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti—six months of inquisition had yielded a 2,000-page report based mainly upon the sworn word of two felons—stated plainly that there was no finding that Rose had bet on baseball games and that he could seek reinstatement in a year without prejudice. But at Giamatti’s press conference announcing the agreement, he was asked if he thought that Rose had bet on baseball. “Personally,” Giamatti replied, “yes.”
Rose, gagged by edict of the commissioner throughout the entire ordeal, unable to defend himself, forbidden to question his accusers, saw this on television in his lawyer’s office in Cincinnati and nearly shat his pants. He had spent a million and a half in lawyers’ fees negotiating the agreement Giamatti had just trashed the day after it was signed. The IRS was sniffing at his door. His career was kaput; his endorsements were gone. He was fucked, and he knew it.
Something worse than all of that—something closely resembling justice—happened to Bart Giamatti, ex-president of Yale, wooed from the Ivy League to reign over baseball, qualified for the job only by having had the sort of love affair with the game unique to fey, pristine intellectuals. “Reconfigure your life,” the commissioner told Rose at their last meeting, sending Rose out from the only life he had ever known. Then, after his press conference, Giamatti repaired to Martha’s Vineyard for a week of rest and recovery, nodded off in a hammock, and never woke up.
Rose has yet to apply for reinstatement. Giamatti was replaced by his pudgy steward, Fay Vincent, whom Rose blames for keeping him off the Hall of Fame ballot. “That lying son of a bitch,” Rose calls him. Vincent was ousted by a club owners’ uprising in 1992; the chair has been empty ever since, the game itself nearly consumed by its cannibal kings. Meanwhile, Rose wanders through his horse-hide diaspora, Kafka in cleats. He may buy a ticket to see a game, but visiting old mates in the broadcast booth is off-limits. When a Cincinnati bakery designed a poster to commemorate the Big Red Machine’s last championship, baseball informed it that an action photo of Rose was verboten. A group pose including him was okey-dokey.
I phoned the offices of Major League Baseball to ask what happened and what might happen to Pete Rose; my calls were not returned. I phoned Rose’s former lawyer, who negotiated the Giamatti agreement; he had his secretary call back to say that he wasn’t interested in talking. I also tried Rose’s current attorney. He rang back and answered all my questions, each with the same words: “No comment.”
I ask Rose what Bart Giamatti had meant by telling him to re-configure his life.
“He never said. I assume that means be very selective of the people that I’m hangin’ around with, and no more illegal gambling.” He still bets, he says, but only at the track. He lives in Boca; his second wife, Carol, and their two children live in Los Angeles. Rose says he gets out to see them as often as he can. “I talk to my kids every day,” he says in an aggrieved tone, as if he feels accused of yet another crime. “You have to do what you have to do.”
Weeknights he does the syndicated, two-hour “Pete Rose Show” from a radio studio adjacent to the kitchen. Rose’s on-air partner—Rose is neither glib nor focused enough to work alone—joins in on a phone hookup from Vegas. There is much talk of point spreads and odds, and a total of three phone calls are taken during the entire show. Through the Plexiglas window, customers gape and take snapshots of Rose yapping into the mike. In the booth, I can smell the potatoes frying, then hot cheese, as brother Dave weaves his culinary magic.
During one five-minute break for ads and a news update, Rose signs five dozen baseballs. While a producer and Rose’s fan-club president open the boxes for him, he autographs the sixty balls in four and one-half minutes, digitally timed.
“I can’t read this one,” the producer says, winking at me.
“They’re all the same,” says Rose, pen gripped tightly, hunched in concentration, unsmiling, not looking up. After signing each ball with a smooth stroke that seems to be one careful, continuous motion, he rolls it away, down the table, toward me. The tail of each final e in Pete lifts to cross the t before it. Each curlicued R flows into the combined os in an almost floral kiss. He’s absolutely right: they are all the same.
Late January in West Texas beneath a warm, high, blue noon sky, and the place is blasted, bleak. It’s the land, skillet flat and dust brown, punctured by bobbing, creaking, sucking metal; it’s the enormous, yellowing Space for Rent placards pleading from every oil tower and the ground-floor windows of every bank and most of the other buildings on the twenty-mile stretch from downtown Midland to the Ector County Coliseum in Odessa; it’s the late-morning Saturday caravan of pickups moving sluglike down the road, each with its own wizened, check-shirted driver, lip bulging with either a pinch of snuff or a mouth tumor, each with his ten-gallon hat pulled down to his furled eyebrows. One weekend a month, sometimes more, Pete Rose hits the road for a card show. Today he’s here.
Except that it turns out to be a boat show, not a card show, and the Ector County Coliseum is not a coliseum at all but a beehive of separate metal outbuildings surrounded by a chain-link fence. The main edifice, which might pass for a coliseum to people whose entire lives are spent dangling from oil rigs, is filled with gap-toothed salesmen fondly stroking big-ticket water vessels that seem exactly as useful here in the Permian Basin as a Psalter in hell.
Chaperoned by two skinny Odessa cops, his eyes shaded by the bill of his “Hit King” cap, shod in off-white ostrich-skin half boots and sporting a diamond-dusted Piaget on his meaty wrist, Rose sits behind a long table on a small wooden stage in Barn G. Behind him hangs a huge poster, blue with silver stars and marked with the cramped John Hancock of Dallas Cowboys defensive-tackle emeritus Jethro Pugh, yesterday’s big draw. Ed “Too Tall” Jones was scheduled earlier this morning, but he didn’t show. Former Cowboys safety Cliff Harris is due in two hours.
Rose is not grinning. “You don’t have one guy charging money for an autograph and two or three other guys signing for free,” he crabs. “I’m not used to doing shows where I don’t sell out. The only way you don’t sell me out is if you fuck it up.”
The West Texas Marine Dealers Association has indeed fucked it up. It has paid Rose $18,000 for 1,000 autographs—below his standard twenty grand but enough to get him here—and it’s charging the public only fifteen bucks per signature, five less, Rose says, than his own floor. So it has guaranteed itself a $3,000 loss, minimum, undercut the value of the only meal ticket Pete Rose has left, and just for humiliation’s sake, it is trotting out these retired Dallas Cowboys—each of whom, however obscure, is the local equivalent of the Lubavitcher rebbe—into the same barn where the “Hit King” is enthroned.
About fifty people wait behind a roped-off set of stairs for Rose to begin signing; in addition to the $5 admission fee at the main building, they’ve forked over the extra $15 at a small booth marked by a spray of balloons near the entrance and received a hand-numbered slip of paper good for one Pete Rose autograph. First in line is a woman cradling the generic bat she has brought for a colleague dying of cancer. Rose’s policy is name only, no personalization, but he adds “To Don, Good Luck” above his signature. He offers the boys his hand to squeeze, calls all the men “buddy” and lets folks snap his photo as they please. He seems downright cheerful now, until he realizes that the policeman flanking him isn’t collecting the $15 slips.
“You gotta keep the tickets, buddy,” Rose instructs in deliberately calm, measured tones, as if speaking to a toddler, “or they’ll get back in line again.”
The officer peers at him with knitted brow, and vacant eves. “Oh, raaht,” he says, finally, flushing. “Raaahht.”
With the first rush of business over, Rose is alone onstage with two hours left to sit, visited occasionally by a few treasure hunters and, just as often, by men his age or older, their faces weather-lined and boyishly shy, who want only to shake his hand and speak their awkward piece.
“When you gonna make your comeback?” asks one, a rangy gent in newly pressed Levi’s.
“This is my comeback.” Rose, seeing nothing to sign, looks down at the table.
“But when they gon’ putcha in the Hall of Fame, Pete?’
“I’m waitin’.” “Well, we are, too.” “It’s not up to me,” Rose reminds him. “Yeah, ah know.”
Like Rose, he has nowhere to go, nothing to do. Later he will climb behind the wheel of his pickup and plod home. For now he is content to stand a spell in front of Pete Rose and shift his cud from cheek to cheek. Rose fiddles with his pens, lining them up on the table, capping and uncapping them.
‘Well, so long, Pete,” the guy says after a long silence, ‘jest ain’t a Hall of Fame ‘thout you innit.” He heads slowly toward the stairs.
Rose turns to me. “People receive me, don’t they?” he asks. He sounds tired, plaintive. I have no idea what he means.
“People receive me, don’t they?” he repeats.
“Yes, I suppose they do.”
“Not only here, but where you been. They recognize me.”
They do the only justice left to him now, these old men who share the obliquity of their love in return for the singles and doubles he stroked back in 1965. Sitting in a tin shed with his silly cap, his $40,000 watch and gold bracelet, his police armada, his plane ticket back to Boca in his leather satchel, he can’t grasp the irony, although his eyes betray the sadness of it.
What happened to Pete Rose his 4,256 hits can’t undo; they can’t shake his naked craving for assurance, not only that he still exists but that he will never not exist. Whatever befell him, I can imagine nothing worse: to grow old 2,500 miles from wife and children, hungry for the passing love of strangers.
With an hour to go, he has signed exactly 227 autographs, and a marine dealers’ rep starts to haul up cases of balls and stacks of pictures for him to ink. They have paid him his fee, and, by God, they are going to get their 1,000 Pete Rose signatures.
Studio City, California. Here Pete’s wife, Carol, lives with 12-year-old Tyler and 7-year-old Cara. It is a fine house on a high-priced hill two turns off Ventura Boulevard, but nothing grand. The living room is enormous and completely devoid of furnishings. There is a pool out back, of course: this is L.A., where everyone outside of Compton and Pacoima has a pool out back. The most impressive thing about the Rose home is its landlord, Alex Trebek, who lives next door. “When something breaks, Alex comes over in work clothes and a Jeopardy! cap to fix it himself. Pete says Alex Trebek’s mother also lives on the block, in the house on the other side of Alex.
We are gathered before a sixty-inch television to view tapes of the golden-tressed Cara, a fetching and adorable survivor of the Jon-Benet Ramsey pageant circuit. Cara is a pro now: guest shots on Ellen, an Amtrak commercial, agent, acting coach, voice coach, fax machine on the kitchen counter to receive her scripts. She sits next to me on the ivory leather couch as we watch footage of her as a rouged and lipsticked 4-year-old Miss Tiny Tots contestant, slowly, slowly, slowly doing full splits in her silver spangles and white leotard. Her lush chestnut tresses frame a small, satin apple of a face; she has a sweet, easy smile and dewy, knowing angel’s eyes. She is, in short, terrifying. She is not jailbait; she is castration bait, Depo-Provera bait, short-eyes-gets-eviscerated-in-the-shower bait.
Snub-nosed, spike-haired Tyler also acts, and he plays catcher on his Little League team. He has a ring from Cooperstown, where his team won some kind of tournament. “He beat me there.” Pete says. “Can you believe that?” He sounds more miffed than proud.
As for Carol, she is tawny haired and leather booted, her spandex workout clothes packed top and bottom by the hand of God himself. She doesn’t scare me; I am drinking her in and wondering what happened to Pete Rose that makes him want to live 2,500 miles away in Boca Raton.
After the children go to bed, Pete inserts a tape of himself on Larry King Live. It is every bit as incisive and interesting as any of Larry King’s oeuvre. In the final segment, Tyler and Cara appear at Pete’s side, which, he tells me now, was the whole point of his appearance. “That helps me,” he says, “when people see my kids, how talented they are and how down-to-earth they are and how nice they are. And how confident they are.”
They are all that and more, and I silently forecast harrowing futures for them both. What happened to Pete Rose—his life and dreams, his present and future, all mortgaged to the past—is happening to his children, who haven’t lived his cursed, infamous life yet are the means of its redemption in his eyes. Like most of us, he does not, cannot, see the brutal, common imprisonment of legacy. His own father was a bank clerk who played semipro football into his forties and drove Pete to focus every fiber of self on making the major leagues. Pete’s own first-born son, Pete Junior, 27, has labored in the minor leagues for the past nine seasons in four different organizations without giving anyone reason to offer him a single at-bat in the majors. What happens to us, all of us, is, first of all, what happened to our fathers.
He bet, bet big, bet often, bet illegally, partnered with steroid-crazed gym rats, coke dealers, and ratfuck scum. Down $34,000 on college hoops in the winter of ’86, he left town on business; his runner switched bookies while Rose was away. A snafu ensued over the debt and its payoff, followed by a rebuffed blackmail threat directed at Rose—and that, according to Rose, is how the whole thing blew up. A runner took his tale—that Rose had bet on baseball, on his own team—to Sports Illustrated and to a new scholar-commissioner who wanted to earn his spurs.
Rose says he never bet on baseball—not on the Reds, not on any team. Did he? I don’t fucking know; no one will ever know. Which is why he must be presumed innocent until proved otherwise in a court of law where his accusers aren’t also his judge and jury; precisely why he has no burden of proof to meet. Rose could have taken another route, tested Giamatti’s mettle and the strength of his case and the power of his office; instead he signed the agreement. It was all he could hope for, he says now: no finding that he bet on the game and a shot at reinstatement.
“Three days later, the son of a bitch dies,” Rose growls. “The son of a bitch dies, and everybody forgets all about the agreement.”
Even if you don’t believe him, don’t love baseball, don’t like Pete Rose, it’s a sour thing to hear him say that he goes to Cooperstown each summer on the weekend of induction to sign autographs for the pilgrims on Friday and Saturday and skips town before the ceremonies on Sunday. Even if you don’t believe in justice, it’s agony to hear him tell about the halfway house—he spent three months there after the five in Marion—where he bunked with paroled rapists and murderers and found himself taunted and pushed around, even by the house staff. They even stole his clothes.
“I kept my mouth shut,” he says, each word a drop of lye. “I didn’t complain. I didn’t bitch. But I shouldn’ta went. It was wrong.”
It was wrong, what happened to Pete Rose. But there is no justice, only irony. Which brings us, finally, to what happened to young Fosse.
“I started to go headfirst,” Rose begins, rising from his chair, coming at me, big and fit and strong, the cask of his chest and his arms hewn of oak, “but he had home plate blocked. So I’m comin’ in from third base, and this is home plate, and I’m comin’ this way, and he’s standin’ like this”—he turns and crouches, Fosse was waiting for the throw, his legs astride the base line. “Now why in the hell am I gonna slide into home plate? My knee hit his shoulder, here. If I go headfirst, I’m gonna break both my collarbones. People don’t know that. All they know is they think I ruined his career.”
Ach. Something happened to Pete Rose, a man as hard as a spear of boned ash: he gambled and lost, came to bat more often than anyone in baseball history, and never once connected with another human being. He has a restaurant somewhere.
The news last week that The Boston Globe was sold was not a great surprise. The New York Times had been shopping the newspaper for a couple of years and various bidders had been mentioned in a number of stories. The news that John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, was the winning bidder also was not a great surprise. He has become part of the fabric of the city, a 63-year-old rich man about town, a close-lipped maker and shaker, lives in a mansion, is married (again) to a younger local woman. This was another addition to an interesting business portfolio.
The price that he paid for this addition was the great surprise.
“I can’t believe he bought our newspaper for $70 million,” I, a one-time sportswriter at The Globe, said to another one-time sportswriter at The Globe. “He gets all that real estate. He gets all of those trucks. He gets the rights to all of the stories, all of the pictures, the 22 Pulitzers, all of the past, plus the computer present and future of the pre-eminent voice in all of New England. The Times paid $1.1 billion for The Globe 20 years ago. He gets it for $70 million? The stories say that’s about four percent of whatThe Times paid.”
“He just gave Dustin Pedroia a $110 million contract extension for eight years,” the other one-time sportswriter said. “So he’s paying $50 million more for the starting Red Sox second baseman than he is for the pre-eminent voice in New England…”
Measured only by the dollar, Selig’s tenure has been a success. However, by almost any other method, it has been a failure, for during his tenure whatever special place baseball still held in American society and culture has irreparably eroded. More than that however, baseball used to matter. Now, despite its financial health, the game is in many ways like an invalid living on an old fortune, wealthy but sequestered, important only to those who still need to keep the old boy alive to live off the crumbs that drop from his lap.
…At the same time, under Selig, the credibility of the game has been shredded. Under his limited sense of leadership, the game chose not just to ignore PEDs, but to revel in their impact, to juice the game artificially after a period of labor strife. Did they plan this? No. Did they see it happen and get all goose-bumpy, and start drooling at the financial rewards? Absolutely. As long as the checks cleared it mattered not that a host of records essentially became meaningless, that history was devalued, or that fully two decades of seasonal results are suspect (including Boston’s long awaited world championships in 2004 and 2007). All in the name of short-term gain, baseball under Selig chose to insult the intelligence of several generations of fans in favor of those who came to the game, not as fans, but as corporate guests.
Baseball has always been a business, but for years its success depended, at least in part, on the ease with which it was easy to forget that. All pretense of that is gone now. Baseball is only business, and business is the only measure that matters. Witness the changes to the All-Star game, the playoffs, the escalating cost of watching the game, in person, on TV, or the Internet. If there is a National Pastime anymore, it is the ATM.
I give you Thurman Munson in the eighth inning of a meaningless baseball game, in a half-empty stadium in a bad Yankee year during a fourteen-season Yankee drought, and Thurman Munson is running, arms pumping, busting his way from second to third like he’s taking Omaha Beach, sliding down in a cloud of luminous, Saharan dust, then up on two feet, clapping his hands, turtling his head once around, spitting diamonds of saliva: Safe.
I give you Thurman Munson getting beaned in the head by a Nolan Ryan fastball and then beaned in the head by a Dick Drago fastball—and then spiked for good measure at home plate by a 250-pound colossus named George Scott, as he’s been spiked before, blood spurting everywhere, and the mustachioed catcher they call Squatty Body/Jelly Belly/Bulldog/Pigpen refusing to leave the game, hunching in the runway to the dugout at Yankee Stadium in full battle gear, being stitched up and then hauling himself back on the field again.
I give you Thurman Munson in the hostile cities of America—in Detroit and Oakland, Chicago and Kansas City, Boston and Baltimore—on the radio, on television, in the newspapers, in person, his body scarred and pale, bones broken and healed, arms and legs flickering with bruises that come and go like purple lights under his skin, a man crouched behind home plate or swinging on-deck, jabbering incessantly, playing a game.