For thirty plus years I’ve lived in the state of New York, but never once considered visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. My reasoning was so simplistic, a child could scrawl it out in crayon cincinnati red:
Pete wasn’t there.
Like a climate change denier, I couldn’t see the change in the baseball climate, the one that said that Rose surely bet on baseball. Pete said he didn’t. That was good enough for me. I even had a t-shirt with a picture of Pete in uniform grabbing himself as players are often caught doing as they stand on first, with the words, “Bet on this, Bart.” Yeah. I was shameless in my support of Rose.
Although, truth be told, being in Pete’s corner proved to be a full-time job. I had to weather not only the admission by the man after 14 years of lying that that he did in fact bet on the game, I had to stand witness to a parade of embarrassing moments, like clowns coming out of a very small car: Pete selling himself off on TV, even as A. Bartlett Giamatti was about to sell him down the river mere hours later; Pete signing notarized copies of the documents making his ban official with the inscription “I’m sorry I bet on baseball;” then there was that noble night, the 25th anniversary of the Big Knock, when he decided he couldn’t be around for the entire celebration orchestrated by the Reds at GABP because he had a prior commitment at a local casino.
It’s the show that never ends. It sometimes felt as if it should come with circus clown music. It takes its toll on a fan.
So, when Google Maps informed me that, after visiting my son on Saturday at his summer camp in upstate Pennsylvania hard by the New York border, I would be only 99 miles from Cooperstown and the next day’s induction ceremony of the great Larkin—I had a change of heart. As an internet friend of mine said the other day, “Rose got exactly what he deserved… he did it the old fashioned way. He earned it.” It was time to let go of my foolish ways. Barry Larkin was surely worthy of that.
Where Pete was greatness and guilt, Barry was greatness and grace. He loved wearing Cincinnati Red. He once was shocked to have a Dodger jersey with “LARKIN” on the back delivered to him by a clubhouse boy when it appeared a deal was about to be done with L.A. to trade Barry to the Lasordas, and they wanted to be ready for the press conference.
Thankfully, we never had to witness that.
It was early when I exited I-88 for the 17 mile scenic drive north up Route 28 to Cooperstown. I passed Goodyear Lake and quaint little motels flush with automobiles. For much of the way I fought through the morning fog, thick with anticipation. As I approached town, the veil lifted and wouldn’t you know it?—corn fields appeared on either side of the highway. At any moment, I half expected James Earl Jones to step out onto the roadway.
I parked directly across from a beautiful canary yellow Victorian house with a wooden sign over the front porch announcing, “Baseball Bed & Breakfast: Vacancy.” Two men in Larkin jerseys strolled past my car as I got out. “Great day to be a Reds fan, isn’t it,” I said. “Indeed it is,” came the reply.
Walking down the tree-lined street and then right onto Main, I passed the shops devoted to the only thing important in this world—Shoeless Joe’s (Apparel – Autographs – Memorabilia – Souvenirs), Doubleday Café, the Where It All Began Bat Co.—all as of yet unopened for the day’s business.
As soon as the Hall opened, I purchased my $19.50 ticket and spent the next 2 hours taking it all in, texting my son, attaching cell phone photos of all the important stuff. It was all there: the impossibly small glove Mays used to make the over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s blast in ’54, the surprisingly beautiful painting of Crosley Field the night of the first major league game under the lights in ’35, and of course, at the end, Barry and Santo, everywhere, because, after all, it was their day.
But, I was unexpectedly caught flatfooted by the exhibits I was sure to be most familiar with. I’ve been to the Reds’ HOF many times. I’m used to seeing Doggie’s bat, Johnny’s mitt, Sparky’s mug. But there hung Rose’s jersey with all the other Big Red Machine memorabilia. IN THE NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME. And over there was an exhibit devoted solely to Rose and those hard-to-ban 4256 hits. A small monitor looped video of No. 4192 being ripped anew into left-center field off the late Eric Show. Just below that, the lineup sheet from that night and the shoes Pete wore. Right there. IN THE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME IN COOPERSTOWN.
On the main floor, I studied the plaques, the empty space awaiting Barry’s permanent placement and the shaft of sunlight from above that poured down over it.
When I walked back into the sunlight, the little town had come alive. Someone had indeed built it and boy, had they come. All the storefront stoops were flush with their proprietors’ wares. People were everywhere in Larkin Red and Santo Blue. A man walked past me with a t-shirt that read “Kickin it with Cueto.” A navy blue shirt waved in the breeze against a storefront window declaring: “It turns out it wasn’t a curse after all—the Red Sox just sucked for 86 years.” We are in New York, after all.
In front of the unfortunately named Paterno Brothers Sports, a local huckster pointed to an extremely large and barely recognizable older man sitting behind a folding table, promising a lifetime of memories in the form of an autograph of the once great Denny McLain.
But next door at Safe At Home Ballpark Collectibles was where the action was. Peter Edward Rose was in the back of the store. I took a snapshot and fired off an email to my son, Zack. His response was predictable.
“OMG. Get on line! Get a picture with him.”
With a mixture of inchoate and conflicted feelings I never knew I had, I bought a ticket and walked around the outside of the building—past a line of former players, Dave Parker, Eric Davis, Lou Pinella, all sitting at tables signing—to the back of the store where a line of folks awaited their moment with the Hit King. I’m not much into memorabilia. I have a ball signed by The Old Lefthander, but that’s about it. But for my kids, I’m a pushover.
It was a business transaction to be sure. I’m not naïve. But, Charlie Hustle sold it well and to tell the truth, I was happy for what it gave me to later share with Zack. All I had for him to sign was something I had just purchased at the museum gift shop: a reproduction of a 1975 Game 3 World Series ticket (Loge Reserved), enlarged and mounted on foam board. Rose wanted to know how I wanted it signed, but whatever he wrote was fine with me. We shook hands. A photo was snapped. Boom. Done. Transaction over. He looked at the ticket for a long moment and said, “It’s hard to believe this ticket was only 8 bucks.”
We’re getting old Pete.
Too old for all the nonsense. For the irrefutable fact is, Pete Rose is already in the Hall. His footprints are all over the place. He’s already crashed the joint just as assuredly as he crashed into Ray Fosse all those years ago. Suddenly, all the debate in my head was put to rest. Put an asterisk there if you have to. Make sure every visitor knows that he bet on the game—as if anyone who ever walks in the door won’t already know the entire story front to back. All I know is, somebody put all that stuff up on the second floor. Somebody got all those hits. And they sure as hell didn’t come at the point of a hypodermic.
Just put his plaque up and be done with it. He’s already there.
I was free of it. A cynic no more. Okay, well, maybe for today anyway. The sportswriters, opinion makers and keepers of the game, sitting in judgment high above the field can say what they want—theirs is the language of the dead. For a day at least, I saw baseball through my son’s eyes—the way I once did 40 years ago, sitting high up in Riverfront, when the giants of the game ruled the artificial turf. How much is that worth? 20 bucks? Fifty? More? You tell me.
I arrived at the field where the induction would take place nearly 3 hours beforehand in an effort to find a place within hailing distance of the stage. Hundreds of seats in front of the stage were reserved, making anything other than a distant observance of the activities all but impossible. Still, I waited nearly three hours in the sun, hoping to hear Larkin speak. A day earlier, I had begun to come down with some sort of bug, which I had been fighting off for more than 24 hours. By 1pm, I was feeling as if El Niño was sweeping through my digestive tract. Facing a four hour drive home back to New York City, I made the disappointing decision to leave before the ceremony had even begun.
I silently cursed my bad luck as I hiked back to my car, a thirty minute walk away while a steady stream of people headed past me in the opposite direction. The whole point of this was to see Barry speak, to witness it in person. To share it with a few thousand other diehard Reds fans. As I drove down the street, Cooperstown quickly disappearing in my rear view mirror, I thought about the day, about missing my chance. Missing Barry. As I headed down the highway, my discomfort was beginning to subside. I pointed the car south on the New York Thruway. I rolled down the window and let the blast of hot summer air buffet my face. I had come to Cooperstown, NY to see greatness and grace. Instead I saw greatness and guilt.
And I was perfectly okay with that.