Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Big Red Machine Takes the Field Again for Pete Rose Ceremony

Excuse me while I turn back into a ten-year old. I can't help it. It happened to a lot of middle aged baseball fans in Cincinnati this weekend.

It was Pete Rose Statue weekend at the Great American Ballpark. Everyone from the starting lineup of the 1975-76 World Champs was there with the exception of centerfielder Cesar Geronimo who lives in the Dominican Republic. Jack Billingham was there to represent the oft-overlooked, but extremely valuable pitchers, along with utility infielder Doug Flynn and former teammates Leo Cardenas, Tommy Helms and manager Dave Bristol.

Upon taking the stage, Rose told the cheering crowd, "Go ahead, you're not going to make me cry." He thanked sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, who had spoken earlier, but added, "You went on so long, 193 people passed out from the heat while you were talking."

He turned serious and told fans, "All those years, you motivated me." He talked about the proud tradition of Cincinnati-grown baseball players, Bill Doran, Dave Parker, Ron Oester and Buddy Bell. He could have included Don Zimmer, Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Larkin and Joe Nuxhall. "All those guys had one thing in common, they all busted their asses on the field."

After telling the crowd, "I love these guys up here," Rose proceeded to show his love in his unique way--with insults: "I met Tony Perez in 1960 at Geneva, New York. I was 2 days out of Western Hills high school here in Cincinnati and he was 3 months out of Cuba. I've known him for 57 years. I was just talking to him back there and I still have no idea what he's saying."

Concepcion: "Because Davey lives in Venezuela we don't know how long he's gonna be around."

He pointed to his teammates, "Up here you've got the greatest catcher in the history of the game, the greatest second baseman in the history of the game, Tony, the greatest Cuban player in history." He looked at Griffey, "Griff, I'm not going to say you were even the greatest player from Donora, Pennsylvania because your kid was born there. Stan Musial wasn't bad either."

Rose thanked baseball owners. "We need to thank all the owners. Because if it wasn't for them we wouldn't get to play. But owners should know that if we were playing today, I would break the damn bank. So would Johnny and Joe and Tony."

In a later Q & A session, Rose and Bench said they had settled their publicized differences and later joked about their failed joint business ventures in a car dealership and bowling alley in the early '70s.

Yes, Pete Rose has committed transgressions and will likely continue to pay for them. But every time he makes an appearance at the Great American Ball Park, the Reds' owners can count on a sellout and Saturday was no exception--the largest crowd since Opening Day.

Out of town writers sometimes seem baffled when they discuss the city's love affair with Pete Rose. Sure, he's the ultimate home town sandlot kid who made good and he played the game with an enthusiasm and passion matched by few players in history. But it's also the team that the fans come to see and celebrate; the unique, wildly successful, entertaining team; a collection of superstars that we know could never be assembled in the modern game.

It was an era in which star players could be counted on to remain with their team for a decade or more. Fans knew their personalities and quirks; saw them around town, just like normal people. And it was such a fun team to watch--they were never out of any game until the last out. We are from a generation of kids who ran to get the newspaper every morning before breakfast to check the box scores; who found seemingly all of our team's players atop the Sunday stats; who listened to Joe and Marty regularly on the radio, hearing "And this one belongs to the Reds," not every single night, but at  least a hundred times a year, and sometimes even more; who watched our team of stars--true superstars--play through the postseason seemingly every single year. We were spoiled as kids--we had no idea it wouldn't always be that way. So now we jump at the chance to remember them again.

It didn't take long Saturday for the decades to melt away--suddenly it was 1975 all over again with family trips to Riverfront Stadium, that space-aged round concrete and plastic-grassed giant that once stood just a few hundred yards away; where crowds of 50,000 or more gathered to watch great baseball. Where six bucks got you a blue seat--the best seats in the place.

 These men on the stage were no longer in their 70s, but were once again great young athletes in polyester beltless uniforms ruling the sport world.

A collection of men who won four pennants and five National League MVP Awards in seven years

Joe Morgan was not a frail man who has battled severe health problems the past year, hobbling on two crutches, being helped to his seat by teammates Billingham and Concepcion, but a cocky little guy with big side burns and an even bigger grin, flapping his back arm at the plate in that unmistakeable batting stance, drawing a walk late in a game, taking a huge lead off first and stealing second, even though everyone in the place knew he would.

Dave Concepcion wasn't gray-headed with a receding hairline, but was an impossibly skinny acrobatic kid whose physique at his first spring training prompted Rose to remark, "That guy doesn't need to worry about pulling a muscle, he doesn't have one;" ranging far to his right to spear a grounder in the hole and throwing a one-hopper off the turf to first.

There's Johnny Bench, driving in runs, showing off that glorious right arm, daring opposing teams to try it.

And Tony Perez, seemingly content to be the unsung hero behind the scenes, allowing room for the other big egos, but always coming through when it counted in the late innings.

Jack Billingham, unjustly ignored like all Big Red Machine pitchers, but finishing his career with a World Series ERA that is still the second best in history--just a notch better than two guys named Sandy and Babe.

And Foster and Griffey, power and speed, stars in their own right.

And, of course, Pete, charging around second base without slowing, helmet and hair flying, then launching himself horizontally and arriving in a cloud of dust.

They will live forever in the collective memory of their fans, and now in bronze outside the park.

Overall, it was a fun day. It was good to see all the players once more, to reminisce about the glory years, and to be ten years old again. Just for a while.

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