The scout stared skeptically at his stopwatch. It said Pete Rose had gone to first base in 4.1 seconds. Mickey Mantle, sound of limb, had once been clocked in 3.1—but on a base on balls? They call it walking, but the Cincinnati Reds' self-winding second baseman is a one-gaited animal.
An all-out hustler evokes feelings of admiration and resentment from modern baseball players, most of whom would rather see than be one, and Pete Rose hears it all as he runs by. Back at Macon, Ga. in 1962 he was "Hollywood." Around the league he has been "Joe Hustle" and a "hot dog," the latter a loosely applied baseball term that can be loosely translated to mean show-off. A wit in Rose's own clubhouse has dubbed him "Basil"—"for basal metabolism," Pete explains. "I guess I have a lot of nervous energy."
Rose has also been called, by Philadelphia Manager Gene Mauch, the most valuable player in the National League, the first point of agreement Mauch has found with anyone in Cincinnati in several years. If the Reds stagger home first in the National League race, it will be because Pete Rose learned to make the double play. And if Third Baseman Deron Johnson's bat wins him the MVP, it will be because Pete Rose learned to make the double play.
The Reds' pennant will have been won either on the playing fields of the Venezuelan League last winter or in a hotel room in Los Angeles in August 1964. Red Manager Dick Sisler was ready to throw the book at Rose that day in Los Angeles. The charge was refusal to obey an order.
September 19, 1965
"He had been using bad judgment as a lead-off batter," Sisler says, "so I benched him in Houston and put Chico Ruiz at second base. Ruiz played well, and I told Rose to pick up some ground balls at third base in practice. He didn't do it."
"It was a misunderstanding," Rose says now. "Ruiz played good for a week, and they wanted me to go to third. I thought they were giving up on me completely, and it teed me off. I wanted to play second base. I'm a second baseman." He had been Rookie of the Year and played all but five games at second in 1963.
"He told me he wouldn't play third," Sisler said. "I called him up to the room and chewed him out pretty good."
The next day Rose looked around for the catching tools he hadn't used since he played in the Little League in Cincinnati 10 years earlier and, because the Reds' two available catchers were bunting, volunteered to catch batting practice. He also picked up some grounders at third base. Eventually, he went back to second and Ruiz to third, and there was entente again in the Cincinnati camp, but it didn't make Pete Rose a big-league second baseman.
"He went like this," says Red Coach Reggie Otero, demonstrating how Rose would take the throw from the shortstop and draw back his arm for the relay, instead of flipping it in one time-saving catch-and-throw motion as Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski and almost nobody else can do. It took a global war to make a major league player of Reggie Otero, but he learned very much about baseball, and about men, as he labored in the vineyards.
Rose cannot explain his fixation about second base. It is just his position, ever since the coach at Western Hills High School in Cincinnati broke the news to Pete when he was a freshman that he was too small to be a catcher in anything but the Little League.
Reggie Otero understood why Rose had to be a second baseman. "It is because that is where his heart is," Otero told the Reds. "He has the desire to be a second baseman, and he has the ability. So you should make him a second baseman, not anything else."
Last fall the Cincinnati management, urgently suggested to Rose that he go to Venezuela to play winter baseball with the Caracas Lions, Reggie Otero, manager. Pete came to play, as usual, but Otero came to work. Reggie's work is making baseball players, which he says cannot be done. "You cannot give them abilities they do not have," Otero says, "but you can make them improve themselves. You can make them work."
Rose worked. He had not been able to make the double play with big-league consistency, and he was weak on balls to his right. The Otero program was an application of the Edisonian formula: 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. On the four days a week that there were no scheduled games in the Venezuelan League, Otero inspired Rose to bring his glove out to the practice field, and Rose perspired.
"It is a game of departments," Otero says. "Throwing the ball is one department, catching it another. Each little thing is a department. The department here was the release of the ball. I had a coach hit ground balls and a kid at shortstop throw the ball to Rose. I would yell at him. It is a game of habit, you know. He had to get the habit. I didn't care where he had his feet, or whether he threw the ball 50 feet wild. When he learned to release the ball, we could work on that."
Later, when Rose learned to release the ball, they did. Leo Cardenas, the Reds' shortstop, says, "He is about 70% better this year."
"Baseball players," says Otero, "are like ballerinas. They must practice until their feet are sore and then practice some more." In the tropical sun at high noon, releasing the ball for the 150th time, something besides their feet is likely to get sore.
"Oh, if Pete was a different kind of kid," Otero says, "he would have told me to go to hell. He would get so tired he'd fall down. I'd tell him to take five, and then we go some more. He got mad one time, in the dugout, during a game. I lined him 500 Bs [bolivars, the unit of Venezuelan currency]. That's $150. I told him, 'Look: you going to make big money next year and it ain't for me. It's for Pete Rose.' "
They worked on Rose's bunting, too. "Alex Carrasquel, the old pitcher, would throw hard," Rose says. "Reggie would coach me. You see I got base hits on bunts this year." You see he got enough to lead both leagues in total hits.
But the double play was the thing. Otero proudly brought a finished second baseman to spring training at Tampa last spring, he thought. Bill DeWitt, the Reds' president and general manager, inquired why Reggie hadn't used Rose at third base in Venezuela. "Because I am not a criminal," Otero told him. "I try to make ballplayers, not destroy them. If you don't like what you see at second base, you put them at third."
They liked what they saw. So they shifted First Baseman Deron Johnson to third, and last Sunday Johnson had only one less run batted in than 1964's Most Valuable Player, Ken Boyer, had all last season. Johnson's adequacy at third let the Reds keep Tony Perez on the roster, and with the right-handed Perez and the left-handed Gordy Coleman platooning, first base had 100 RBIs by Sunday. That sort of thing, despite a sometime bullpen and a tendency to blow four-run leads, had the Reds close to the head of the NL pack as the wire neared.
If it seems fantastic to imply that Rose kept Johnson in the league, it is mildly fantastic to Johnson that he is in the league at all. The frustrations between the late 1950s, when he was considered the cream of the Yankee rookie crop, and his belated realization of stardom with the Reds this year were many enough to make him a realist. He failed with the Yankees, which was one thing, but when he failed to make it with Kansas City in 1962 he had to wonder. At the batting cage in Cincinnati last week there was a discussion of a player who felt he had been sent away because somebody up there didn't like him. "I've found that nobody in this game likes you," Johnson said. "When you're hitting, they love you. When you stop, they'll sell you for a dollar."
Rose has not known bitterness and may never know it. For him it has been onward and upward, and he thinks only about improving. "I got to get so I don't make errors," he says. "I got 17 this year. That's too many." Seventeen errors is a highly respectable statistic for a second baseman who has played all the games into mid-September, but Rose compares himself to nobody but Mazeroski (who had eight errors at the time).
"Maz," Rose said before last Saturday's game, "would you please make an error, just so I know you can do it?"
Mazeroski protested that he had made errors, but Pirate Center Fielder Bill Virdon interrupted. "Hello, MVP," he said to Rose, and then, to everybody: "Remember when they used to talk about little Pete Rose? He's gotta be 6 feet, and he feels like he weighs 190." He's gotta be 5 feet 11, but Virdon guessed the weight. So did Milwaukee Catcher Gene Oliver two weeks ago, when Rose detached him from the ball in a headfirst slide to the plate. Oliver couldn't believe it was head-first.
Rose weighed 155 when the Reds first signed him in 1960. That winter he gained 15 pounds while lifting crates in the Railway Express Agency in Cincinnati. The loading platform is about a three-base hit away from second base in Crosley Field. The next year he went to the Florida State League and hit 30 triples. He ran all the way.