By Larry Backus
I had a phone call from Las Vegas in early December. Through a mutual acquaintance I had requested Pete Rose contact me for a phone interview to be included in the book I am writing about baseball. You won’t read about our discussion in this column, though I heard later that Pete enjoyed our conversation, as did I. This column was actually instigated by Alex Rodriquez rather than Pete Rose. The comparison of the two men, their baseball careers, their fall from baseball heroism, and their penalties levied by Major League’s Commissioners of Baseball is too much to resist.
Alex Rodriquez is a lock for Baseball’s Hall of Fame. He will turn 39 this year in July and has played 19 seasons of major league baseball for three teams beginning at age 18. He was the youngest player to hit 200, 300 and 400 home runs. He has accumulated 654 home runs, 2,934 hits and a .299 lifetime batting average at the end of the 2013 season. He will not play baseball in 2014. He has been suspended for one year, including post season play. The suspension was levied due to his breaking a baseball rule against the use of performance enhancing drugs. In other words, he cheated. A-Rod, his sports nick-name, has earned $361,845,451 in salary alone during his 19 years in baseball. He is embarked on a multi-year contract with the New York Yankees; a team that has paid him the majority of his baseball earnings, $283,818,451 thus far. A-Rod is a native of New York City; he has a problem summed up by the word greed. Despite having no equal in terms of talent during his career, he damaged the legacy of baseball and his team, and he cheated his teammates and fans.
If you are a sports fan, you know by now that a number of the greatest athletes in sports have clay feet. Ty Cobb was not a friendly guy; Babe Ruth was not a perfect husband and was more than a social drinker; Ted Williams was a mostly insufferable loner who preferred fishing to being one of the best baseball players of all time. Some players treat fans like their ex-wives. Professional sports are highly competitive and require toughness as well as talent; a character of quality is not a prerequisite.
The current issue of Sports Illustrated has an interesting article by S.L. Price about Richard Ben Cramer and A-Rod. Cramer was the author of exceptional biographies; his subjects include Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Senator Bob Dole, President George H.W. Bush, and Vice President Joe Biden, as well as other news reporting that led to a Pulitzer Prize. Cramer was one of the best journalists of sports or any other topic during the last century. Late in his career, he was given a $550,000 advance to write a biography of Alex Rodriquez. Cramer spent five years working on the biography, eventually producing nothing but a 2,800 word forward. Price quotes a conversation Cramer had with Rob Fleder, a former editor of Sports Illustrated. Fleder relates that after five years of work, Cramer had nothing to write about. He claimed that his experience with A-Rod was so awful, that it ruined his faith in the player, the Yankees, and baseball in general. Cramer passed away last year. A-Rod will play baseball in 2015 and possibly beyond with a very high income.
Pete Rose loved sports; he attended classes in high school only to play sports. He graduated a year late due to his boycott of classes during his sophomore year. He was peeved because he was not invited to play varsity football after an outstanding freshman year. Pete was not a big guy in high school, but his determination was evident. After high school, he must have added at least 40 pounds and four inches of height. He wangled a tryout with the Reds, signed a small bonus contract and became Rookie of the Year in 1963; only three years after his high school graduation. His initial goal was to become the first $100,000 singles hitter. His 24-year playing career brought him a total baseball salary of $7 million and a page of baseball records including most hits, doubles, at bats, and a lifetime batting average of .303. His accomplishments on the field include an MVP Award, World Series wins, and much more. Pete would play wherever his manager or team needed him. He played outfield, infield, even caught a few games and maintained a high fielding percentage at every position. Winning games was the only thing that mattered on the field, and just like in high school, Pete would run through a brick wall to win.
Pete was as rough as Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, he did not always choose the best friends, he managed a few divorces, but was not a bad father. After his playing career he got into bad company and bad gambling habits. He broke a cardinal rule of baseball; he bet on baseball, even his own team (he claims only to win). He got caught and lied to his teammates, who would have supported him if he told the truth. He was not as wealthy as A-Rod, he admits the error of his ways; he continues to care about past teammates and baseball; it is the only reality he has ever known. Like A-Rod, he let his fans, his teammates, and baseball down. If I had to choose between the two as a friend, I would choose Pete. Most people that saw him play, or played baseball with him, believe he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Maybe with an asterisk, but he belongs. Pete Rose has suffered greatly for a mistake that many are given treatment for, rather than a lifelong condemnation and ban from their occupation. For A-Rod, his year off is meaningless in comparison. His damage to fans, his team and baseball may be much more than Pete Rose’s fall from grace.