ANALYSIS : THE PETE ROSE INVESTIGATION : By Any Other Name, This Is Still Baseball
Editor’s Note--The Pete Rose Affair is about more than a prominent athlete caught in a shocking investigation. It is about the love affair millions of people have with baseball. Ron Sirak, assistant sports editor of The Associated Press, is one of the millions, a baseball fan since he was a child growing up in Western Pennsylvania in the 1950s.
It is the game you fall asleep with at night, in front of the television or listening to a radio in a darkened room, and wake up to in the morning, scanning the box scores over a bowl of cereal or a cup of coffee.
It is more than Pete Rose and gambling. It is more than a game. No sport is followed the way baseball is followed.
It is a way of marking time, a constant in lives that are constantly changing.
I was on the school bus going home, a 10-year-old boy hanging out the window with a transistor radio, when Bill Mazeroski homered in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Pittsburgh Pirates an incredible victory over the mighty New York Yankees in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series.
Nine years later, I had a different radio and was a college sophomore marching in an anti-war demonstration, this time tuning in the first game of the 1969 World Series as the upstart New York Mets took on the Baltimore Orioles. Tom Seaver lost the game but the Mets won the Series.
Like an old song whose first notes immediately put you back in high school, or like one of those sights or sounds or smells that transport you back to your childhood, it is one of the signposts re still a relatively new thing. The game carved its way into the night, finally won in the 12th inning when Carlton Fisk homered over the left field wall in Boston and gave us the indelible image of him leaping up and down a few steps from home plate, motioning for the ball to stay fair.
A few innings earlier, after Bernie Carbo had tied the game for Boston with a pinch-hit three-run home run, Pete Rose came to bat and said to the catcher, Fisk, words to the effect of “it’s an honor to play in this ball game.”
It was an honor to watch that ball game.
I had just come home from work and was moving my car to the other side of the street, as New Yorkers have to do each day, when I heard on the radio that Thurman Munson had been killed in a plane crash.
That was 1979. August. I parked the car and cried. I was no longer a kid. Twenty-nine. But he was my favorite New York Yankee.
I don’t even have to pause to get the dates, times and places straight on these events. And there are dozens more events like those and millions more people like me.
That’s what makes the Pete Rose Affair special. We are not just talking about an athlete caught up in a sticky investigation. And we are not just talking about one of the greats of a sport caught up in a mess.
We are talking about Baseball and something bad happening to it.
But why does this game mean so much to so many?
Perhaps because it is played virtually every day for six months.
Perhaps because it is a game a normal-sized person can play--we can all fantasize being in the major leagues.
Perhaps because team loyalties in some families have been passed down for generations.
And perhaps it is just in the game itself.
It is beyond time. There is no clock to end the play. A game could go on forever, a very appealing fantasy for people confronting their own mortality.
It is also rooted in now. Three strikes. Three outs. Four bases. Four balls. Nine innings. Nine players. Throw the ball. Hit the ball. Catch the ball. Throw the ball again.
And it is just nice to look at.
Green, whether real grass or artificial, whether under light from towers above or warmed by the sun on a summer day.
Slow, the time to talk between pitches, think about what is to come, anticipate. Build the tension, the expectations.
In many ways it is like what our lives are like--periods of routine occasionally disrupted by the dramatic.
And no sport produces the drama of baseball.
I was in a bar in 1977 for the sixth game of the World Series when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three pitches in three consecutive at bats--each one longer than the one before--to make the Yankees the champs over the Dodgers. I will never forget that.
I was in the AP office for the first game of the 1988 World Series, ready to edit copy that would say that the Oakland Athletics had defeated a Dodger team weakened by an injury to Kirk Gibson.
Then, with the Dodgers trailing by a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Gibson limped from the dugout, hobbled to home plate, worked the count to three balls two strikes and then hit a home run second only to Mazeroski’s in World Series drama.
The Dodgers had won, 5-4. No one who saw it will ever forget Gibson dragging his injured leg around the bases, punching his fist in the air. No one who listened to it on the radio will ever forget how the roar of the crowd drowned out the voice of the announcer as he described the ball flying closer to the wall, closer, then over.
Baseball produces those moments. For some reason, maybe for many reasons, they stick with us.
For millions of people, baseball is our constant companion. The Pete Rose Affair is about something bad happening to a very dear friend of ours.