Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Losing Hands

They were key parts of the only Phillies team ever to win a World Series, and even if they hadn't had stellar, decades-long careers, Pete Rose and Tug McGraw would have been remembered for decades to come in this city for what they did in one half-inning.

If you're a Phillies fan over the age of about 30, the video of the bottom of the ninth of Game 6 of the 1980 World Series is burned onto your soul. You see Rose, playing first base for that team, and catcher Bob Boone converging in front of the Phils' dugout as they pursue a pop foul. You see Boone take his eye off the ball a half-second early. You see the ball clang off his mitt. You see Rose, ever vigilant, never taking a play off, react instantly, shove his glove downward, and snare Boone's misplay.

You see McGraw, long hair flying from under his cap in the cold October breeze, slamming his glove on his thigh as he strides in from the bullpen, tapping his heart after close plays. You see him push a weak, chest-high fastball past Willie Wilson, who can do nothing but wave feebly at it. Strike three, third out, the Phils take the Series from the Royals, and Philadelphia explodes with joy. You see McGraw throw his arms in the air, tiptoe off the mound, and then catch Mike Schmidt, who has soared in from third, in a rapturous embrace.

And then you pick up the papers today and read in sadness and anger that both men, players who approached the game and even the world from vastly different directions, have made the front page, for all the wrong reasons.

McGraw, as loopy as the screwball he threw so effectively, succumbed to brain cancer yesterday, 10 months after being diagnosed. A walking advertisement for the benefits of a positive approach, he helped the Mets and the Phillies win championships, but more than that, he was a civic icon here -- a battler, sure, but a lover of life as well. Tug McGraw knew he was privileged to be playing a game, a concept that too, too many of his fellow players, past and present, could never wrap their arms around. He was one of us, and he will be missed, as heartfelt efforts from the Inquirer's Bill Lyon and the Daily News's Bill Conlin point out today.

Recognizing that he's not growing any younger himself, Rose finally admits in his new book that, yes, he bet on baseball games -- including Reds games when he was Cincinnati's manager. As baseball transgressions go, of course, this is beyond the pale, an egregious attack on the one thing -- integrity -- that separates sports, with all of its flaws, from con games and professional wrestling.

Even when he was playing, before Bart Giamatti and the Dowd Report and such, Rose was a difficult guy to like. Not many players would hurl himself toward the catcher in an attempt to dislodge the ball in an All-Star Game, but Rose did, breaking Ray Fosse's jaw in the process. On the night his 44-game hitting streak ended, Rose was all sour grapes, bitterly spewing that Braves reliever Gene Garber wouldn't throw him a fastball in his final at-bat. As if it were Garber's job to put Rose in a better position to hit safely.

Even in fessing up to his gambling, though, Rose remains defiant and unable to accept that he did anything wrong. Remember how your mom used to listen to your mumbling, careless apology to your brother and then order you, "Say it like you mean it"? Well, Rose is incapable even of that. From Larry Eichel's story in the Inquirer this morning:

Anyone expecting Rose to express remorse for his lying and his gambling on his own game -- behavior forbidden by a rule posted in every baseball clubhouse -- is likely to be disappointed by the book and the other aspects of his public relations offensive.

"I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done something wrong," he wrote. "But you see, I'm just not built that way. . .

"So let's leave it like this: I'm sorry it happened, and I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family it hurt. Let's move on."

In other words, to paraphrase yet another sports malcontent, just throw me in the damn Hall!

There are about as many opinions on what to do with Rose as there are baseball fans. The Inky's Phil Sheridan came out swinging Saturday with a sharp, effective piece, and Conlin, doing double duty today, muses that maybe, just maybe, MLB knew what it was doing when it resisted the many calls to get off Rose's back:

It is beginning to dawn why commissioner Bud Selig has made no move to reinstate Rose from the 14-year-old lifetime ban -- even though more than a year has passed since a meeting with Rose attended by Hall of Fame teammates Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan. The Lyin' King admitted he bet on baseball at that meeting. He offered the Pete Rose equivalent of "I'm sorry," which is to say he blamed a gambling addiction he has denied for years, bad advice and the loneliness that engulfs a former batting champion reduced to flashing bunt signs.

Selig's silence since the meeting has been deafening. But it should become even more significant as Tell-Almost-All Week unfolds, as Rose's sound bites dance across prime-time TV, as he is written back into the monologues of Leno and Letterman, as his dwindling cadre of apologists cling to an unraveling strand of failed spin.

Conlin also offers a decent compromise on separating the player's achievements from the man's disgrace:

How would I deal with Rose? Well, his admission that he bet on the Reds burns his reinstatement ticket. Let him eat royalties. But those orphaned 4,256 base hits still need a home in Cooperstown. They need to highlight a plaque that chronicles Rose's suspension and the reasons why. Fay Vincent has a problem with that.

"If you've been the commandant of a Nazi death camp, you can't get into the baseball Hall of Fame," Vincent said. "But you can get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

How will Cooperstown resolve the delicate Rose character issue? Several veteran ball writers I talked to yesterday don't think Pete can score the required 75 percent if he gets on a ballot his final 2 years of eligibility.

How about this: Figure Pete lied just about every day for the past 14-plus years -- it will be 15 years Aug. 24. Let's round it out to 5,000 lies. Subtract 4,256 hits from 5,000 lies, and we get a remainder of 744.

Make Pete eligible for Cooperstown election in 744 days from the date of his forgiveness: That would take us into early 2006. Let the Hall of Fame conduct a one-time special election.

Meanwhile, let's turn off the sympathy engine. A great ballplayer got down with slimeballs and the Hit King became the Lyin' King.

Opposites who shared a special season and an enchanting autumn in a city starved for some magic, Tug McGraw and Pete Rose are, respectively, a man who left too soon and a man who can't leave soon enough.


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