Among the old cities of the East, where baseball has been played for more than 100 years, there is no richer tradition than opening day in Cincinnati.
Long before Schottzie, Loni Anderson or Pete Rose, it was hard to think of Cincinnati without thinking of opening day.
The Reds played in a quaint little ballpark, Crosley Field, from the early years of the century until the advent of Riverfront Stadium in the 1970s.
Rose, who grew up in Cincinnati, has the utmost respect for the tradition of opening day.
“Cincinnati is my hometown, and I’ve been part of the tradition since I was a schoolboy,” Rose said. “If you were lucky enough to get a ticket to opening day, you’d take it to school and get out of class early so you could get to the ballpark.
“The tradition has really stuck with me all these years.”
Rose was asked to compare the experience in Cincinnati with an opener in Southern California.
Rather than make snide remarks about laid-back fans or the short history of major league baseball in the West, Rose answered with a combination of respect and excitement that probably has a lot to do with his longevity.
“Hey, any time you got a big crowd, 50,000 or 60,000 people, I don’t care where it is, or whether it’s April 5th or August 5th, you get a good feeling,” he said. “The atmosphere is different when the stadium is full.”
In his 24th season as a player and his third as a player-manager, Rose still has the childlike enthusiasm that has been his trademark and lifeblood.
Because Rose has been able to pass on some of that feeling to his team, the Reds are widely viewed as serious challengers to the Dodgers in the National League West.
“I don’t know if we’re the team to beat,” Rose said, “but we’re going to be very competitive. We’re certainly going to be a good team. We’ve just got to hope it can stay healthy.”
Rose can’t guarantee Dave Parker will stay healthy--"I’d buy 24 black armbands if he got hurt,” Rose said. But he will keep it simple for Parker and the rest of his players.
“You have to understand, I grew up near the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500,” Rose said, launching into a long explanation of why baseball has to be kept fun.
“I’ve never seen either one of those events live, because I’ve always been involved in baseball. Now I’ve got a friend who calls the Derby, and I could sit between his legs if I wanted to, and I could be in the president’s box at Indy anytime I wanted.
“But I haven’t reached that stage yet. I stay in baseball because I haven’t thought of anything better to do in the summertime.”
Rose said he doesn’t know how long he’ll manage--maybe as long as they’ll keep hiring him for another year. That could be a long time, because as Rose said, borrowing a phrase from collegiate sports, he’s got the program turned around.
If having fun can keep it turned around, Rose should be managing into the 21st century.
“Hey, these guys aren’t Marines,” Rose said. “I’ve played for managers who had more rules than the Marine Corps, guys who would get mad and turn over the dinner table in the clubhouse after a game.
“I don’t see it that way. My only two rules are to be on time and give 110%. Players got enough to worry about just trying to play the game right.”
When Rose returned to the Reds in 1984 after service in Philadelphia and Montreal, he was surprised to find there was no TV in the players’ lounge. In Philly, the players had contributed $50 each to buy a big screen set, handy for watching the game of the week or a rival’s game.
The Reds have a TV now.
“I want my players to enjoy coming to the park,” Rose said. “I want them to feel they can come out early and relax a little.
“In Philadelphia, you’d see 15 guys in the clubhouse at 2:30 in the afternoon, five hours before the game started. It was fun. On a last-place team, the only guy you see at 2:30 is hanging jockstraps.”
One of the pleasures of managing is that it keeps Rose from getting preoccupied with such cosmic matters as when he ought to quit as a player.
“I never worry about whether I can still hit or if I have the bat speed,” he said. “And I’ll tell ya, if I can’t get around anymore, you’ll see me scooting back in the batter’s box, and the umpire will be saying, ‘Pete, get your (bleep) back in the box.’ ”
Even when the day arrives that he can no longer hit--after, what, 5,000 hits?--Rose thinks he still will be of service.
“I’d be a good batting coach,” he said. “I sure as hell wouldn’t have some guy worrying about 15,000 things he ought to be doing when he’s standing up there at the plate.
“Hey, you can’t be thinking too much when Dwight Gooden is throwing. You’ll have two strikes on you before you figure out what to do with your front leg or something.”
If only the game was half as easy as Rose makes it sound, there wouldn’t be utility players hitting .240 and making only $400,000 a year.