A man with the most famous name in baseball begins another professional season today, 25 years after his first. Pete Rose Jr. is a manager now, for the White Sox' Class A affiliate in Kannapolis, N.C., the kind of town and the kind of ballpark -- there's a playground down the first base line -- where Rose Jr. has spent nearly all of his long, remarkable and unparalleled career.
He's doing well for himself. After managing a few years in short season instructional leagues (two seasons in Bristol, Va.; another in Great Falls, Mont.) Rose Jr. has moved up: Kannapolis plays a 140-game schedule and has luxury suites in its 4,700-seat stadium. The White Sox like Rose Jr. for his commitment, his attentiveness and his true devotion to the game. A big league job is three giant steps away. "I'm going to get back to the majors one day," Rose Jr. has said to me. "It's going to happen."
It has always been about the big leagues for Petey -- and Petey is how he'll forever be known to those who saw him by his father's side, through the years of the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, or in the dugout with the 1980 World Series champion Phillies, or on the field at first base embracing big Pete, the newly minted Hit King, on the night Ty Cobb's record fell and Riverfront Stadium shook like it would never stop shaking. Petey was a 15-year-old bat boy that night, Sept. 11, 1985, and he'd been around major league clubhouses since before he could walk.
"It think he thought he was actually on the team," said Buddy Bell, a Reds third baseman in the mid 1980s and now vice president of player development with the White Sox. "You know, he kind of was."
Petey was still in his teens when he started playing pro ball in the summer of 1989, an Orioles farmhand in the New York Penn League. That was the same summer his father was being investigated and exposed and then banned from baseball for betting on the game. The heckling that Rose Jr. heard that season and in the seasons afterward made baseball men cringe: hard, blunt jokes about gambling, about tax cheating, about Pete Rose, the Hit King, going to prison. It was one drunk after another, in this minor league town or that one, letting Pete Rose Jr. have it for what his father had done. Petey got that in his ears every day; as if making it in pro baseball wasn't tough enough.
Rose Jr. wasn't a real prospect and had no rich array of skills. But he could hit some, and he played the game right, the way his father taught him. This was a kid who knew when to hook slide into third base by the time he was 12 years old. And then, in the summer of 1997, playing for Chattanooga, the Reds' Double A team, Rose Jr. hit . 308, knocked 25 home runs and got called up to the majors in September. A big crowd turned out to Riverfront Stadium for his first game, on Sept. 1, and an airplane flew overhead with a banner: Welcome Home Petey. His Dad was in the stands too.
Rose Jr. started at third base and got a hit that day, and a couple days later he got another. He appeared in 11 games, went 2-for-14, scored two runs, answered questions about his father wherever he went. And then that was it; he never got the chance to set foot on a big league field wearing a big league uniform again.
But Pete Rose Jr. wasn't done. He played 12 more seasons: Winnipeg, Joliet, Long Island, Bridgeport, Lincoln . . . one independent league team after another. Often he hit the ball well, and always he heard his name out of the crowd. The money wasn't much and buses broke down, and his knees throbbed where the cartilage used to be and he slept on friends' couches here and there. He turned 30, 33, 38. He got mixed up in PEDs for awhile, became the second Pete Rose to do some time. He never quit. Twenty-one years, 27 teams, 1,972 games.
"It's astounding," says Bob Hoie a leading minor league researcher for SABR. "To play in that many games is extraordinary. To play so many games in low-level leagues? That is unheard of."
So now here he is on another ballfield, in another town. Maybe making the major leagues is another dream, or maybe it's out there for him. He is 44 years old with a real job in baseball, and that can lead anywhere. Opening Night in Kannapolis is a Thirsty Thursday promotion; you can re-fill your big cup of beer for cheap.
Rose Jr. still loves the little things about the game, things his father loves too -- the squaring up of a fastball; the way a ground ball cuts through the grass; the knocking of infield dirt off your hip; the moment of noticing that a pitcher's arm has dropped just this much late in a game; the heavy stick of pine tar. He has a lot of baseball to teach and he tends closely to the kids on his team, and by the looks of it, folks say, he'll be a damn good manager. It's a new season for Pete Rose Jr. and if you're not rooting for this man you haven't thought it through. Go get 'em Petey.
Kostya Kennedy's new book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, is available here.