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ALBANY — Some nicknames are unwanted gifts from opposing players throwing barbs at one’s ego.
In Pete Rose’s case, those players were Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. As story has it, Rose was a rookie second baseman with a stocky build. He wasn’t blessed with Mantle’s physical tools, but the young second baseman could hit. He hit .330 the previous year in Macon, Georgia. In his last two seasons, he amassed 47 triples. When Rose drew a base on balls in a spring training game against the Yankees, the kid from Cincinnati sprinted to first. The two veterans in the opposing dugout called out, “Why, there goes Charlie Hustle.”
The name not only stuck, it inspired every plucky Little Leaguer whoever tried to gain the attention of his coach. When the world calls for you to walk, you run.
In the newspaper trade, the string of words that immediately follow the first reference of a person is called a “nut graph.” You take the sum of a person, and in a nutshell, describe who the person is.
For Rose, that nut graph has varied over the years. He is, of course, the all time hits leader of Major League Baseball. That crown was placed upon his head once he hit a line-drive single to left centerfield in his hometown of Cincinnati during the waning days of the 1985 season. His 4,192nd. One more than Ty Cobb. He’d finish his career with 4,256.
Rose’s playing days are remembered most often with him wearing the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds, but it was his brief stint with the Philadelphia Phillies that provoked one of my questions.
Rose joined the Phillies in 1979 as a highly touted free agent Philadelphia hoped would push the team into the World Series. It didn’t quite happen that year, but things turned around in 1980.
As a kid growing up outside of Houston, that 1980 season is remembered with the all too familiar baseball question “What if?” The Astros signed Nolan Ryan, adding the junior circuit’s strikeout leader to a pitching staff that boasted a 20-game winner in Joe Niekro and J.R. Richard, that National League’s strikeout leader.
Richard’s name is no longer a household name, but he was on par with Randy Johnson before Johnson played the game. Standing 6-foot and 8-inches tall, Richard was a menacing sight on the mound. With a hard fastball and knee buckling slider, he struck out 300 hitters the prior two seasons, and won no less than 18 games in the past four. In 1980, he appeared to be on his way to a Cy Young Award before his career was cut down by a stroke.
The Astros took the National League West pennant and played Philadelphia in what many considered the most exciting playoff series in baseball history. Just, they lost and the Phillies went on to with it all, so Houstonians seldom get excited about it anymore. Still, there’s the question as to what would have happened if Richard wasn’t befallen to poor health.
“You never know,” said Rose. “You never know.” Philadelphia came back from a two games to one deficit to win the series 3-2. Each of the last four games went to extra innings. “I guess I was lucky and they weren’t that J.R. wasn’t there, because J.R. was one of the most intimidating pitchers I ever faced.”
Rose still would have hit Richard. His lifetime batting average against him was .352 in 87 at bats. Against Ryan, he hit .296. A stat Rose can proudly recites.
“I always understood you had to get up for the lions,” he said.
It’s those stats and stories he will share with the crowd again. Just a bunch of baseball fans gathering in a grand hall to talk baseball. It won’t all be about Cincinnati or Philadelphia. There will be anecdotes from all over.
“I can talk about playing in Geneva, New York in 1960 when I’m two days out of high school,” he said. “That’s when I met Tony Perez, when he was two months out of Cuba. I had dinner with him about two weeks ago, and I sat there for two hours, and I have no idea what he said. He still can’t speak English.”
His tour of “An Evening with Pete Rose” stops in Albany at the Palace Theatre on Friday, Sept. 14. Each night, he subjects himself to questions from the crowd after the presentation celebrating his 24-year playing career draws to a close. He doesn’t shy away from the tough ones.
“When you get a negative question, you answer it,” said Rose. “There’s nothing to hide. There’s nothing to hide. You have to be truthful. Not everything is good. Some things are bad, but that’s okay, because you get a chance to explain your side of the story. It’s a good thing.”
At 77, Rose has been out of baseball longer than he played it. Nevertheless, he still captures the attention of baseball fans, many of whom remember him as “Charlie Hustle.” His storyline outside the context of baseball, however, has since wavered. Oft answered questions none of which Rose has shied away from answering. The least seldom asked question is how would Rose choose to be remembered?
Rose will tell you he is the game’s best ambassador. The former manager watches two to three games a day. He can still dissect a team and figure its chances of winning it all. As Ted Williams once wished to be remembered as the best hitter one ever saw, Rose hopes a simple legacy will be attached to his name.
“I’m the greatest winner in the history of sports,” said Rose. “I’ve got the most hits, and I’ve got the most doubles. I’ve got the most at-bats, the most games played [and] the most winning games. You play the game to win. I’ve got the most wins in the history of baseball. It’s the only reason you play.”