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Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Casual Critic — Pete Rose's My Prison Without Bars

I finally made it down to the new ballpark last week, Citizen's Bank Park for those more tolerant of corporate America's increasing grip on life. Though it was a great game and the Phillies' new home certainly did nothing to deter my rebirth, albeit gradual, as a fan of baseball over the last couple of years, another feeling stayed with me.

Circling the stadium was like walking the boards down the shore. Games, shops, and food stands, everything but rides, have come to baseball. In fact, the first pitch came and went seemingly unnoticed by most folks. Going to the game, it seems, is now a social event.

As a kid, I was a die-hard fan of Phillies, and 1980 will live in my heart forever. My devotion followed my favorite player, Lonnie Smith, to the St. Louis Cardinals leading to the joy of watching my adopted team win a couple more Series. Those were days of seeing every pitch I possibly could and devouring box scores. But Smith's ultimate trip to the American League and later the Atlanta Braves left my loyalties homeless and my love of the game withered.

Recent unemployment led to having plenty of time on my hands, and the romanticism of the timeless, day-in, day-out nature of baseball is again finding a place in my heart. The Phils have once again become the team I root for. Yet, as I struggle to get back to die-hard status, and with all due respect to my man Lonnie, I can't help but think baseball is missing something it seems determined to never retrieve.

Pete Rose.

Yeah, Lonnie was the young guy I latched-on to, learning the game as announcers and news reports chronicled his early education as a pro player. It was a habit of mine to latch on to the younger players as I grew in my fandom of the local teams. Randall Cunningham, for better or worse, was my guy in football. Hersey Hawkins, along with Jimmy Lynam in the coaching ranks, expanded my knowledge of hoops. And while I loved the style of manufacturing runs Lonnie Smith excelled at, Rose was the living legend I got to watch roaming the diamond as a kid.

Playing on my knees in our basement with my brothers, I still "crouched" to bat because Rose did. I wanted to slide head-first or bull somebody over because Rose did. I didn't mind my hair over my ears because Rose had his it that way.

And Pete brought us 1980. Pete was baseball.

Last year I finally read Rose's book. Somehow the kid in me didn't really believe he was the grumbly guy I’d heard would brush passed kids seeking autographs. And, somehow, his version of the betting-on-baseball stuff would be make it ok. He'd be the pure, nice baseball legend kids back then like me imagined him to be.

Unfortunately, Rose's My Prison Without Bars finally killed any naivety still living in the sports fan in me. There was just something seedy about his take, not just on the scandal that has him banned from baseball, but life in general. He's a bit too proud of his tough-guy image. Worse yet, I had a sense, at times, that he fell into the "nothing's my fault, I'm addicted" attitude of the '80s.

Despite Rose having bet on baseball, he should be in the Hall of Fame. Even though I hate the argument that says guys already in the Hall have done much worse — a logic that pervades society far too much in general — the fact is, we are talking about the Hall of Fame, not life. Rose epitomized everything we want our heroes to be, at least on the field. He hustled on every play, truly played to win, did all the little things, and, in fact, won. We’re not talking about some scrappy guy who struggled to make the squad. Pete was doing ''the little things'' long after folks started charting his successful bid to become the all-time hit leader.

I'm certainly not sold on his total reinstatement. He is clearly guilty of the betting charges, but he's served his time. He's not just a Hall of Famer, he's one of the best ever, and yet can't even participate in celebrations of his former championship teams. Don't forget his infractions, but let the man have his due and allow him into the Hall and baseball stadiums on official business.

I look forward to what I hope are many more trips to the ballpark. I'll live with yuppies and the carnival around the game. And I'll remember Pete Rose played the game better than any future Hall of Fame inductee I'll ever see.

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