07/10/2016

#14Forever

This submission is from reader Todd McDorman. With this post, I think we’ve probably run the gamut of opinions on the Hit King.

The raucous capacity crowd greeted their favorite son with a hero’s welcome. The adulation continued for minutes. First, for the anniversary of the returning 1976 World Championship team. Then, for the retirement of uniform number 14. Finally, for his induction into the team’s Hall of Fame. It might have been 1991, shortly preceding a nearly-unanimous election by baseball writers to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

The central character would have been Pete Rose, the hometown hero, a fifty year-old manager, coming off a 1990 World Series title, with shaggy salt-and-pepper hair, a slightly expanding waistline, and a cool, self-assured intensity. It would have been a different ceremony, there would have been a different energy, and it would have reflected a different era—one without smartphones, the Internet, or social media, and before labor strife wiped out a World Series, eight-figure annual player contracts had become the norm, or the sport was engulfed by rampant speculation over performance enhancing drugs.

Instead, the ceremony was in June 2016. There was not a World Series championship as a manager, nor an induction in Cooperstown. Pete Rose is 75 years old, not 50, has thinning, unnaturally dark hair, and has not been in a major league uniform since 1989. It has been a difficult second act for the “Hit King,” one that has played out over talk radio and cable news, the Internet, and social media. What a different story it has been for Pete Rose.

For Reds fans, and for Pete Rose fans in particular, the 2016 Reds Hall of Fame induction weekend was a long awaited and nostalgic return to yesteryear, a time when the Cincinnati Reds were the center of the baseball universe. As a Reds fan, I felt it was a great weekend, an opportunity to pay and display reverence—likely for the final time—to the greatest team and era in the franchise’s history. As a rhetoric scholar—someone who studies public discourse in the form of words and images—I found it to be a well-crafted, nostalgia-infused weekend filled with fascinating symbols and some excellent post-apologetic rhetoric.

The excitement over Pete Rose and 1976 was almost enough to forget 2016, and it certainly feels like the events were designed to do so. The weekend promoted the sort of illusion created by a side-view mirror with the warning, “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

No doubt, the hope of the Reds is that glory days are closer than a team on pace for more than 100 losses would lead fans to believe. “#14forever” weekend was designed to encourage fans to think about the past, using it as a way to control—and obscure—the present. This is how nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past, works. It creates a sense of comfort and security that can soothe uncertainties of the present. Remembering legends of 40 years ago is a salute to what happened, and also a promise of what could happen again, thus providing a way and a reason to not dwell on the team’s depressing present. And beyond the festivities there were still games to play, with some of the weekend’s pitchers, such as Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan, Raisel Iglesias, and Michael Lorenzen, envisioned as key elements of the team’s future. Reed’s start to Friday night—striking out the first batter before giving up a home run to the second—seemingly captured the state of the Reds, a team rich with potential but unfinished.

Amidst all the hoopla, select voices suggested that the Reds were keeping the weekend—and Pete Rose—in perspective while nostalgia could not fully erase simmering divisions. That the Reds approached the weekend and Rose’s situation with open eyes was signified in part by the windows on the team’s Hall of Fame. Outside the wall of 4,256 baseballs, and overlooking the rose garden, an insightful piece of poetry has been on display: the knotted history of the hit king with a stubborn tongue.

“To sing the knotted history of the Hit King with a stubborn tongue” is a fantastic phrase, one that recognizes Pete Rose’s significance to the franchise as well as his ownership of his problems. It is an acknowledgement by the Reds that Rose’s place on the outside of baseball is understandable and his role in the situation should not be forgotten.

I was also taken by how this message was reinforced in an unexpected location: the 1976 themed soundtrack for Friday night’s postgame fireworks. It might seem unlikely that the playlist was significant beyond featuring top songs from the year of the championship season, but several of the selections were interesting for their potential meaning. The evening’s fireworks started with an easy enough to read selection, the “Boys are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy. The song was only number 87 on Billboard’s Top 100 in 1976 but it has remained popular and, regardless of what its full message might be, the title and refrain were applicable enough with the boys—the 1976 Reds—back in town. It was a fitting and catchy start.

Selections that followed included “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” by the Four Seasons (#4 on the Billboard Top 100 for 1976) and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee (#2 in 1976). “Oh What a Night” captured the nostalgic feeling of a crowd able to celebrate the rare occasion of the 1976 team reunion and, again, seemed to be more than coincidental. On the other hand, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was an interesting selection for the way it might be read as paralleling the relationship of Pete Rose and the city of Cincinnati, with the heart of the town not broken even if Rose tried through his many foibles, from leaving via free agency to his baseball banishment. The back and forth lyrics offer: “Don’t go breaking my heart; I couldn’t if I tried” and “Right from the start, I gave you my heart.” The song stands in for the enduring place of Rose in the hearts of many Cincinnati fans despite his misdeeds.

The most interesting selection was the closing song, “Dream On” by Aerosmith (#51 on the 1976 Billboard list). The wistful song’s title might again capture the mood of the night—it could be a dream, one that fans would like to see continue—while the lyrics offer a melancholy reflection on a “past [that] has gone” and a challenging life. The song’s chorus—“Sing with me, sing for the years. Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears. Sing with me, if it’s just for today”—indirectly captures the tribulations related to Rose and the weekend reprieve granted for him and fans to commune with the past. A stretch perhaps, but the song selections go beyond the coincidental when all of the top songs of 1976 were open for use.

I was also intrigued by another symbolic element of the weekend, one that might reflect a continuing competition between Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, the two most iconic players in the franchise’s history. It is well known that Rose and Bench have had a complicated relationship.

The underlying tensions in that relationship might have been represented in the physical separation of the two throughout much of the weekend (although, yes, they participated together in a ceremonial first pitch and had cordial public exchanges). Rather than having Bench and Tony Perez, Rose’s two Hall of Fame teammates from the Big Red Machine (in the absence of Joe Morgan), flank Rose at his pre-induction press conference, Barry Larkin occupied one of the seats next to Rose while Perez was in the other. And while the ordering of Reds dignitaries by National Baseball Hall of Fame induction and number retirement would have placed Bench nearest the speaking platform during the induction ceremony, Perez occupied that seat. This might represent a purposeful distancing of Bench and Rose, one that used Perez and Larkin as physical buffers between the two Reds icons. The competitive positions of the pair in Reds history was also captured in a way beyond their physical separation: during the weekend Rose wore his now standard white Reds hat with the wishbone C while Bench consistently wore a dark blue Reds hat with a blue C. It was interesting that in weekend appearances—when few players were wearing caps at all—there were Rose and Bench with their contrasting hats—with neither, for whatever reason, wearing a traditional Reds hat at that. I don’t know if there is anything to make of these orderings and behaviors but given what is known about the often strained relationship between the two, the displays caught my attention.

As for Saturday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, it was about as perfect as could be hoped, from the introductions to Rose’s speech. I think it is useful to consider the induction ceremony in the larger context of Rose’s post-ban public rhetoric and to contemplate what was left unsaid as much as the words that were actually spoken. Unsurprisingly, Pete Rose’s best public moments since his ban have been on the field. It has been his off the field actions and comments that have created the most problems: the gambling denials in 1989’s Pete Rose: My Story; the botched, defiant, and partial confession of 2004’s My Prison Without Bars; his seeming small steps toward potential reinstatement undermined by anger and impatience while pleading for a second chance that he seemed to think he was automatically entitled to; his decisions that have prioritized money, such as the autobiography and his Las Vegas autograph residency; and antics that have just been sad and embarrassing (for example his short-lived reality show “Hits and Mrs.”)

Coming as it did a dozen years after his confession, 6 years after his Great American Ball Park appearance for the 25th anniversary of setting the hit record and six months after Commissioner Manfred officially denied his reinstatement bid, Pete Rose weekend occurred at an ideal moment and in an ideal environment for Rose. Not only has “guilty Pete” become the accepted norm, increasingly on display at GABP through appearances for the 2015 All-Star game, statue dedications, and television broadcasts, but with the faint hope of baseball reinstatement decisively dashed, Rose could dispense with the admissions, apologies, and pleas in his first actual on field comments in Cincinnati since his ban. To his credit, Rose—a man known for speaking his mind and who seemingly defies being handled (or just has poor handlers)—was in top form as he delivered an address that I would call post-apologetic, one that wasn’t dedicated to image repair or justifications but was just about the occasion at hand (I also couldn’t help noticing, with some irony, that Rose was framed by a Draft Kings billboard with a MLB logo in left-center field and a billboard for a casino in right field, more indications of how much has changed since 1976 and 1989). Rose was funny, humble, and even grateful, with only a few semi-pointed allusions to his situation rather than being the vulgar, defiant populist he has been known to be.

In leading off the induction ceremony, Marty Brennaman praised Rose for leaving an indelible mark on the franchise and embodying “many of the qualities” that define great Reds players. The emphasis on “many” of the qualities was a subtle and likely intentional adjustment that reflects Rose’s troubles. Similarly, while principal owner Bob Castellini’s citation included a reference to the occasion as providing “testimony to our collective belief that you, Peter Edward Rose, are a Hall of Fame player” he also expressed the team’s “gratitude and respect” for being allowed to induct Rose into the Reds Hall of Fame—gratitude that was also expressed by Rose himself. The only other comment that hinted at Rose’s ban was when Castellini said Rose never lost “hope that this day would finally come.” Significantly, neither Brennaman nor Castellini—or Rose himself for that matter—made reference to Rose’s gambling, allowing the induction to take place in a context that accepts what Rose did as known history and didn’t try to explain it.

As for Pete Rose’s speech, there were a few quips about how long it took for the Hall of Fame induction to occur, but the reason why was left for fans to supply. Instead, by making his speech about the people of Cincinnati and his teammates, and not about himself, Rose was able to offer a post-apologetic rhetoric that prioritized identification over self-aggrandizement in telling fans, “you motivated me to play the way I did.”

While some might criticize Rose for not offering another apology or attempting to supply a moral lesson, I would argue that after his multiple on-field appearances and Commissioner Manfred’s reinstatement denial that no such statement was necessary. With guilty Pete, the accepted norm there was no need to recount the transgressions or plead for forgiveness, particularly at the risk of either appearing less than sincere (lacking the proper show of contrition that Rose has been accused of) or striking a tone of defiance that so often emerges in Rose.

Instead, Rose used humor, offered a few allusions to his situation—for instance his encouragement of the crowd’s cheers when he said, “Go ahead. I’ve waited for 30 years,”—and focused on Cincinnati. And rather than bolster himself by reciting his accomplishments, like he so often has seemed to do (though, admittedly, he also didn’t need to with his many record numbers digitally displayed around GABP and the video tributes from past Reds that offered lavish praise), Rose offered the sort of candor that might be as close to introspection as he is capable of: “Did I ever think I’d make it” (into the Reds Hall of Fame)? Nope, but I did.”

Ultimately, Rose exceeded the five minutes allotted to him despite the increasingly frantic signals of a Reds staffer and the Oscar style music intended to usher him off the stage. Once Rose noticed the efforts he offered his most popular line: “The hell with it, I’ve waited 30 years.”

The speech—and his appearances across the weekend—demonstrated a Rose that has been liberated in a sense. He knows where he stands and it is ground that is difficult to imagine shifting while he is still alive. Maybe if and when a known PED user gains Hall of Fame admission there will be additional discussion about Rose’s situation, but that seems unlikely in the present while Rose’s banishment from the game is increasingly irrelevant given his advancing age. Hopefully there will be more days for Rose at GABP—the unveiling of a statue of him for instance—but the opportunities will continue to be fewer in number. It may well have been, just as Rose said in his closing, that his Reds Hall of Fame induction, is the “biggest thing.”

In 2016, just about the only people the plight of Pete Rose matters to are Reds fans, and even some Reds fans have had enough. While all three games were sellouts, the stadium was not at capacity. Empty seats were clearly observable, standing room seats were not necessary, and there wasn’t a clamor to obtain tickets or signs of rising prices. Nostalgia has its limits and Pete Rose fatigue has clearly set in.

This is underscored by how, despite the excitement in the Queen City, Pete Rose Weekend or #14forever didn’t attract significant national attention. The events appeared to pass without either national writer Joe Posnanski, periodic advocate of Pete Rose and author of The Machine, or Kostya Kennedy, the Sports Illustrated writer who authored the most recent, and potentially best, biography of Rose, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, commenting. On ESPN television the Rose ceremonies garnered a few seconds of video but no audio before quickly turning to the games of the weekend while in game stories and print coverage the only real attention given to the event was that the length of Rose’s Saturday induction speech (which really wasn’t that long) caused the game to start (six minutes) late.

It is also telling that the ceremony wasn’t met with any discernible calls for Rose’s reinstatement or national Hall of Fame induction. The public—even much of Cincinnati—is at peace with where Rose is and, to his credit, Rose’s induction weekend rhetoric was accepting as well.Despite the feel good vibes, I’m hesitant to suggest that Pete Rose has changed, that he suddenly “gets it.” We’ve seen this before—Pete Rose showing what might pass for common sense—only to return to previous form. And even now he is doing local commercials with gambling puns, has a television commercial for an app used for sports gambling, and recently announced his affiliation with a daily fantasy sports site in which fans can compete against Pete.

Whatever the future holds, we have the events of #14forever, a weekend where Rose and the Reds got it right. We shouldn’t allow the comfort of nostalgia stirred by the events to erase the past or cause us to forget the “knotted history of the Hit King with the stubborn tongue” but he can also be recognized as our Pete Rose—Cincinnati’s and the Reds—and his speech was about that, given to the one city and the one fan base that is accepting of him—most enthusiastically so, some more grudgingly so, and all with a legitimate basis for their opinions on the matter.