Pete Rose Jr.`s long long journey

August 19, 2014

Hagerstown, Maryland

By Mike Theiler

I’m a baseball nut. I live and breathe baseball. I dislike football. I dislike basketball. I dislike soccer. A real baseball fan only loves baseball in my opinion.

I believe baseball is a metaphor for life.

It is life and death. It is also re-birth with spring training. It is marriage and divorce as players are joined together and then are either traded, discarded or fail.

Major League Baseball is, of course, the very pinnacle of the game. The best hitters, the best pitchers, the unrivaled history; The Babe, DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams’ .406 season, Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters.

But while MLB has all that and so much more, my real, true enjoyment of the game starts with the minor leagues. “The bushes”, and the struggle of the players to advance up to “The Bigs”. The crackerbox ballyards. The intimacy with players not yet full of themselves. Free parking. Cheap beer. The whacky between-innings carnival of gags.

I first heard of Pete Rose, Jr.’s playing days in 1994 when he was in Prince William County, Virginia, near where I live. Like any serious fan, I knew he had grown up on the ball field, around his famous father, Pete Rose, “The Hit King”, with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970’s.

Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose gives batting tips to his son Pete, Jr., aged 2 1/2, in Cincinnati, October 11, 1972.      REUTERS/Bettmann

I remember he played for the Lincoln (Nebraska) Salt Dogs, my hometown, in 2004.

I read about his prison time in 2006 for supplying teammates with GBL, a steroid alternative and sleep aid.

Finally, I saw him playing for the York (PA) Revolution in 2009, playing under the name “PJ Rose” and couldn’t help but think what a long, strange trip, to quote The Grateful Dead, he has been on.

Five years later I heard he was now managing in Low-A ball for the Chicago White Sox in Kannapolis, North Carolina. A Google search turned up the fact that he has been beating the bushes for 27 years! Astonishing!

I just had to see what made him tick.

Would he even talk to me? Would he be defensive? A check of the schedule showed his Intimidators would be playing the nearby Hagerstown Suns over the Fourth of July weekend.

Speaking of his father, Pete Rose, baseball aficionados know he has the record for the most major league career hits: 4,256.

Trivia question: who has the most career outs?

The same man, Pete Rose, 10,328.

It’s well established that baseball is a game of failure. A player gets a hit once every 3 plate appearances and he is a star. Hitting a 100-mph fastball, or a dipping, curving, dancing baseball is arguably the most difficult thing to do in all of professional sports.

Michael Jordan is probably the greatest athlete of our generation. He couldn’t hit a baseball. Jordan’s one year, playing for the Birmingham Baron’s minor league team, he hit .202, only .002 points above the “Mendoza Line”, baseball’s threshold of incompetency.

Plenty of contemporary hitters are getting multi-million dollar contracts for hitting .268. Get two and a half hits for every ten at-bats and you get rich. But statistically you are still a failure.

Pete Rose hit .303 for his career. You could say that failure runs in the Pete Rose family.

You could say that his son, Pete Rose, Jr., is an even bigger failure.

Pete Rose Jr. awaits the start of a South Atlantic League game between his Kannapolis Intimidators and the Hagerstown Suns at the old 1931 Municipal Stadium, in Hagerstown, Maryland, July 6, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Except for one very brief “cup of coffee” in 1997, when he spent 28 days with the Cincinnati Reds, Pete Rose, Jr. has been chasing the major league dream for 27 years. He has played or coached over 2,000 games and he has worn the uniform of 29 teams – in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico.

Frederick. Erie. Sarasota. Columbus. Kinston. Gulf Coast. Hickory. Prince William. South Bend. Birmingham. Indianapolis. Chattanooga. New Jersey. Nashville. Reading. Winnipeg. Joliet. Lincoln. Florence. Long Island. Bridgeport. York. Newark.

Oh, and Cordoba and Aguascalientes in the Mexican League and Tigres del Chinandega in Nicaragua. Winter ball in Puerto Rico.

Throw in the last four years coaching and managing in Florence (KY), Bristol (TN), Great Falls (MT) and his current employment with the South Atlantic League Intimidators, and that is a lifetime of hard times. A road with a lot of bumps and potholes.

Minor League baseball is a slog ….

Exhausting eight- and nine-hour bus rides, provided the bus doesn’t break down. It all adds up to thousands of mind-numbing miles over the course of a 140-game season – moldy clubhouses, cockroaches in the locker rooms, no-door toilets, wheezing air conditioners, lousy food, sapping summer heat, nagging injuries.

And if that wasn’t trying enough, for Rose, there was the 30 days in a 10×10 cell in Boone, Kentucky for the Gamma-Butyroldactone rap.

And if you are Pete Rose, Jr., there were always the drunks at “Thirsty Thursday” buck-a-beer games, heaping abuse on you with language that would make Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet blush, ranting about his father’s troubles: for tax evasion, his prison time, his banishment from baseball for betting on games, lying about it and now selling memorabilia in Las Vegas with autographs of “I’m Sorry I Bet on Baseball.”

Yes, you could say Pete Edward Rose, Jr., now 44, is a failure.

But you would be dead wrong.

There’s no pity party around his clubhouse.

I discovered that the moment I walked into the visitor’s locker room in the ancient, broken down, Babe Ruth-era 1931 Memorial Stadium , where Rose’s team was preparing to play the Hagerstown Suns.

I asked Rose what drives a guy after all the years, the miles, the trials, the abuse, the setbacks?

“My players, my kids,” as he points to his gaggle of players shagging fly balls and taking batting practice, on the murderously hot field of a July day. “They make it a joy to come to work”, he says proudly. “It’s definitely family here,” he adds.

The Intimidators, after a 7-hour all-night bus ride from Kannapolis, arriving at dawn, and a 9-0 pounding by the Suns on the Fourth of July, look like they won the Maryland Lottery.

“We make it fun,” Rose says. “I am not a drill sergeant, I don’t bark orders, I don’t yell at my kids,” he adds, as he explains his theory of surviving the relentless dog days. “Let them play, you lose one, tomorrow is another day.”

Any thoughts I had about Rose being a tough interview vanish, as he warms to the subject. Rose demands only two things from his players: “Be on time. Play the game the right way”.” He wants his kids to share his passion, but he also demands good character.

“They are extremely good baseball players, but even better kids,” he notes.

Manager Pete Rose Jr. jokes with his Kannapolis Intimidators players in the dugout, prior to a game in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Rose tries to be a real father figure in the clubhouse. “First and foremost we are family. These kids know I’m not only their manager, I can be their Dad, best friend, whatever. It’s a tough game, it can be a lonely game, it can drag you down.”

With obvious regret, he recalls not being able to leave a pass or have his dad in the locker room, because of his father’s official banishment from MLB clubs and its affiliates. He encourages his players to have their families experience the thrill of their playing days while it lasts.

He laughs when he recalls the duties he performed in his first year of coaching at Bristol, at the bottom of the barrel Advanced Rookie Appalachian League, “You teach them how to sign autographs the right way, you teach them how to put their socks on the right way, teach them how to pay the rent …”

Although clearly relishing the opportunity to manage in the bushes, Rose admits that “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss playing.”

Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1988, in the 12th round, he was the 295th player taken. Not exactly a Number 1 draft pick.

Eight years and 12 teams later, during a breakout season with the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1997, Rose got the call up to the parent Cincinnati Reds, his father’s old team, in September. His stat line:

11 major league games
2 hits
0 home runs
0 runs batted in
.143 batting average

He never got back to “The Show.”

Rose never quit. But time overtook him. Although he had productive years in 2007-2008 with the Long Island Ducks, an arthritic knee hobbled him. He gutted it out one more year with the York Revolution and one game with the Newark Bears, and then his playing days were done.

He was planning on leaving baseball in 2010, going home for family time, when he got a call from old Chattanooga teammate Toby Rumfield, managing at Florence. Rumfield needed a hitting coach. Would Rose be interested?

And with that, Rose accepted the challenge and embarked on a career with the same passion he brought as a player. Last year he marked a proud milestone by managing the Great Falls Voyagers to a division title.

Rose gets a little emotional when he speaks of the promise of some of his “kids.” There is the fleet center fielder Adam Engel, hard-playing Jacob Morris, Danny Hayes, Christian Stringer, pitcher James Dykstra and 19-year-old third baseman Trey Michalczewski, among others.

Kannapolis Intimidators infielder Toby Thomas of Eight Mile, Alabama (R) and outfielder Chevy Clarke of Atlanta, Georgia, clean their spikes outside the visitor's clubhouse, in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

“Seeing these kids play, I want to come back, dig a trench and jump in there with them, the way they play hard, running everything out, wide open and with passion,” he says.

When I note the tenderness in his voice, Rose laughs and says “I get that from my Dad. People say he is this big, tough, macho guy, but he’s really a softie at heart. A lot of people don’t get to see my Dad the way I do. Sure he is Charlie Hustle. Mr. Mean Guy. Mr. Tough Guy. But there is a softer, funnier side that we get to see.”

There is another Rose in the ballpark today. Pete Edward Rose III, 9, is along for the bus ride. Rose III plays catch with his dad, shags balls and gets in step with the workouts. Earlier in the season, Rose’s daughter, Isabella Marie, 7, got to spend time in the dugout with her Dad.

There’s that all-important family connection again. Rose notes that his two kids have 25 Big Brothers to watch over them, when they visit.

Any conversation with Rose is sprinkled with references to his return to Major League Baseball. Not if, but when. His Odyssey continues.

Rose nods in agreement when I mention that the beauty of baseball is that there is no clock. Time doesn’t expire. You keep playing for nine innings.
He sees himself as only in the 2nd or 3rd inning of his managerial career.

Manager Pete Rose Jr.  and his Kannapolis Intinidators players participate in the playing of the National Anthem prior to the start of a game in Hagerstown, Maryland, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

He muses about what it will be like to be a big-league manager, but on this night he has a seven-hour overnight bus ride to Greensboro, North Carolina, to look forward to.

With that thought we begin to trade mutual memories of sad-sack, but charming, ballparks like Pulaski’s Calfee Park or Bluefield’s Bowen Field, both 1930’s relics in impoverished Appalachia. Then there are the shuttered parks in places like Newark, Kinston and Fayetteville. Baseball left those locales and only the memories linger.

“I tell anyone who will listen that when I get to the big leagues, we’ll be sitting back and laughing about this hard road, but we’ll be in first class seats, shrimp and lobster, all that good jazz … Rose says. “That’ll come in time. That’ll come in time.”

Pete Edward Rose, Jr. loves baseball as he loves his Dad, his family and his players and coaches.

“I’m going to manage in the Major Leagues. That’s what’s going to happen,” he says without a sliver of doubt.

Don’t bet against him.

Pete Rose Jr. is hugged by his son, Pete Rose III, 9, as they watch batting practice, prior to a game in Hagerstown, Maryland, July 5, 2014.   REUTERS/Mike Theiler

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