‘Cincinnati Is a Joke to Pitch In’: A Not-So-Brief Chat With Pete Rose

ESPN Films Pete Rose

A stunning blonde approaches the table where Pete Rose is signing autographs. Rose is seated at a desk in Las Vegas’s Mandalay Place, one eye on his iPad watching horse races, the other on the statuesque lady with the green top, four-inch heels, and big smile.

“Pete Rose! Oh, my god, this is so exciting! It’s not every day you get to meet Pete Rose!”

“Nice to meet you,” says Pete, smiling. “It’s not every day I get to meet someone … so tall.”

Pete is as friendly and inviting to drunken frat boys as he is to 6-foot blondes. He takes several minutes to chat with every visitor — “Where are you from? Montana? There’s this great burger joint in Helena … you know the one?” — shaking hands vigorously, signing every autograph meticulously, even folding jerseys himself. He does all this while keeping the thread of a reporter’s questions and keeping tabs on the ponies. He makes somewhere around $1.5 million a year for his Pete Meet and Greets here in Vegas, with a contract that runs through 2017. As documented by our friends at ESPN Films, he is uncommonly good at his job.

Here are Pete’s thoughts on a wide range of topics, lightly edited for clarity:

On the unwritten rules of baseball:
I used to get screwed when we had a seven- or eight-run lead, because I couldn’t bunt for a single or I’m “showing up the opposition.” … Guys that are home run hitters can continuously just swing from their ass and trot around the bases. I remember one time we had a 7-1 lead in the sixth inning in Houston, and J.R. Richard was pitching. I hit a single to right-center and I went to second. He threw at the next two hitters because I was showing the team up! What am I supposed to do when I got a 10-run lead, just go up there and strike out?

On Ben Davis breaking up Curt Schilling’s perfect-game attempt in 2001 with a bunt single:
[The unwritten rules] are stupid. Who cares if you bunt for a base hit? The only guys who criticize him on that are losers. Now if it had been 10-1, maybe. But down 2-0? I’d bunt, too.

On unions and umpires:
We always got our way and got the best pension because we stood together. Marvin [Miller] should be in the Hall of Fame. Marvin and Donald Fehr and Mark Belanger. That’s why we’ve got the best pension in the world, other than the president. Because when we used to play the All-Star games, 90 percent of the gross receipts would go in the pension fund. Where football plays their Pro Bowl and gives the winner $35,000 and the loser $25,000, which is several million dollars that could be going in the pension fund every year. And if you’re a Pro Bowl football player, I don’t think you need that $25,000.

We didn’t have no scabs. That’s another reason why the baseball umpires have such a good union; they’ve always stayed together, too. Umpires got power, man. You ever notice if you go to a ballpark and there’s a close play on first base, they will not run the replay at the ballpark? I’ve seen umpires go underneath and call up and say if you run one more of those replays, we’re gonna forfeit the game. That’s how strong their union is.

On instant replay:
I think you should have a guy up there in the booth. Because there’s so many close plays in baseball. You oughta have a guy up there, like a couple years ago when the kid threw the no-hitter, the umpires didn’t go over that guy’s head. [Rose is referring to Armando Galarraga losing a would-be perfect game in 2010 on a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce at first base.] If you had an instant-replay umpire up there, he woulda looked at that in five seconds and said that guy’s out. I don’t want it for every play, but if it’s a big play and it’s close, yes.

It’s just like you hear these guys all the time in pro basketball, they’ll say, “Well, it’s the last minute of the game; we’re not gonna call those fouls.” What do you mean?! If it’s a fucking foul, it’s a foul, whether it’s the first minute of the game or the last minute of the game. I don’t understand that. What kind of integrity is that? They don’t want the game to be determined by a foul, but if they don’t call it, that makes a difference in the game, too. I just don’t get it.

On using technology to call balls and strikes:
No, you don’t do that. Here’s what people don’t understand. When I was in the league for five, six, seven, eight years, I could sit down with you and I could tell you who’s a low-ball umpire, who’s a high-ball umpire, who’s a pitcher’s umpire, who’s a hitter’s umpire, who’s a good umpire, who’s a bad umpire. Bruce Froemming, I know Bruce Froemming his whole career. Just because he gets a memo from the commissioner’s office to change the strike zone, if he’s seen it the same way for 25 years, he’s not gonna change his strike zone. So it’s up to you to know what umpire is gonna call this pitch. And all you want him to be is consistent. None of them call what the rulebook says. The rulebook says from the knees to the armpit — you ever see a guy call a pitch up there?

On the proliferation of home runs:
What we’ve done for baseball is this: We made all the ballparks smaller, we’ve juiced up the ball, the pitchers are bigger and stronger, and we won’t call strikes. Everything is against the pitcher. They should raise the mound again, put them on even terms. They lowered the mound after the ’68 season; that’s because Bob Gibson had 13 shutouts and Denny McLain won 31 games. And they haven’t done anything with it since then.

I saw a guy last year in Cincinnati — I’m not bullshitting you — his fucking bat broke in half, and he hit the ball out in center field. Out of the ballpark. And is there a reason why Ryan Howard has over 200 opposite-field home runs? I played against Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente, and I don’t remember seeing any of them hit opposite-field home runs. And they were pretty good hitters. One hit 660 and one hit 755, and I don’t remember them hitting opposite-field home runs. I just don’t remember it. I’m sure they did sometimes but not like these guys today. Cincinnati is a joke to pitch in; it’s a fucking joke to pitch in. Philadelphia is a joke to pitch in, Camden Yards is a joke to pitch in. Now, the new San Diego ballpark, and the Met ballpark was a joke to pitch in, so what do they do? They bring the fences in! So it’s gonna be worse.

On three things he would change about baseball:
I don’t think there are three; I can give you one. I don’t understand when you’re in a National League town you don’t use the DH, but in an American League town you use the DH.

I also don’t see why at an All-Star Game every team has to be represented. I think that the home city should be represented. But if no one from Seattle deserves to make the All-Star team, why should that guy take a spot? No other sport does that.

I think another thing … DHs get screwed in the World Series because the National League town doesn’t have the DH; that’s not fair to them. I’d have a DH in both leagues; I like the DH. You know why I like the DH? Only for one reason. Because in my eyes, the DH creates more runs, and if you’re scoring more runs, it’s more interesting for fans. That’s the only reason — not because I wanted to be a DH.

I also wouldn’t be offended to have the season start maybe a week or 10 days later and end a week or 10 days sooner, and play the same amount of games. Bring back doubleheaders; I like doubleheaders. People like doubleheaders, but owners don’t. That started changing — I remember down in Houston they started playing split doubleheaders at the Astrodome. You play one at 1:30 and one at 7:30, and everybody had to leave the stadium. But they’re not gonna do that [now] because of the salaries. Less days off. When I was a baseball player, I didn’t want a fucking day off. I wanted to play.

On training, and not taking days off:
I didn’t use weights or anything. But I also didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I took care of my body, and I played all the time. I remember one time I went in to negotiate my contract, and the guy looked at me and said, “You didn’t even play in every game.” I played 161 games. And two times I played in 163. “You didn’t even lead the team in games played; somebody else played 162,” he said. That’s the kind of shit we had to hear.

On Bob Gibson:
He’s the best. He never stops talking now, but it wasn’t like that at all when he played.

I’m in the league two weeks, playing in St. Louis. Gibson hits a double, I’m playing second base. I go over and say, “What’d you hit, Gibby, a fastball?” And he stood there like this, not moving, not saying anything. So maybe I didn’t say it loud enough. “What’d you hit, Gibby, a fastball?” Nothing. Now the inning’s over, my manager’s Fred Hutchinson, I went over and said, “Hey, skipper, let me ask you a question.” He said, “What do you want, rook?” I said, “Is Bob Gibson a deaf mute?” He said, “Why?” I said, “I asked him what he hit, and he won’t talk to me.” He said, “No, he don’t talk to the opposition.” So the next day I’m out there early hanging on to the cage watching Groat and Boyer and Musial and Julian Javier. And Gibson comes out of the dugout. In those days there wasn’t fraternizing, and I’m watching batting practice. And he walks by me and says, “It was a slider, rook.” It took him 24 fucking hours, but he talked to me!

On the toughest pitchers he faced:
I hit .307 off Gibby. But I was 10-for-59 off Sandy Koufax; that’s not too good. But you gotta remember: The first year I broke into the league, he struck out 372. And the second year, he struck out 350. So I wasn’t the only guy he was getting out. I was a switch-batter, not a switch-hitter. He was right over the top; I hadn’t learned how to hit yet.

On how and when he learned to hit:
I didn’t learn how to hit until I went to Venezuela after the ’64 season. I went to Venezuela to play winter ball and came back and hit .300 12 or 13 more years in a row. I worked hard every day. Played three or four or five games a week. Reggie Otero was our manager. We had a good team, we won a championship. I just grew up, I matured. You know, I only hit .273 my first year, and .269 my second year. So I was looking at going back to the minor leagues. You know, I just hadn’t learned how to hit yet.

On signing and talking for a living:
Stories, I’ve got stories. That’s why I’m good at this, because I’ve been everywhere. It’s not like a card show where you do your two hours. We try to make an experience, not an autograph. It’s fun … beats working. It’s relaxing; I’m relaxed here. I’ll tell you something else: I think in the history of baseball, I’d be willing to bet you I signed more free autographs than anybody. I know I’ve signed more autographs that people have paid for because I do this 20 days a month. But if I walk out of here after I’m done or if I’m at the airport or if I’m in a restaurant and somebody asks for an autograph, I don’t say, “No, you’ve gotta buy that tomorrow.” But here I’m working. Some people don’t understand that. They think I’m supposed to sit here all night and sign autographs and not get paid. My time’s valuable, too.

On living in Vegas:
I came to Vegas because I work 20 days a month here, I couldn’t live anywhere else. I must tell ya, this city is the only city in the country where my gig works. I think last year 40 million people visited Vegas. Every three days, it’s different people. And they all come in here with one thing — money — and they want to spend it.

I’m probably the only guy in my position that would do this. Joe Morgan’s not gonna do this, Willie Mays is not gonna do this, Carl Yastrzemski’s not gonna do this. They just don’t enjoy it like I do. And modern-day players don’t need to do this because they make millions of dollars. Let me tell you something: If I was playing today making $20 million a year, I wouldn’t do this. I’d be nice to fans and everything, but I wouldn’t need to do this. I’ve got a lot of bills, so I need to do this. That’s not a bad thing. I’m not stealing from anybody.

On gambling:
First of all, that’s one good thing about working here. Because in order to come by [and] say something about gambling, you’ve gotta be the biggest fucking hypocrite in the world. Because you’re on your way to the casino. And I’m not a casino gambler. I’m not getting all crazy and going to play blackjack. I don’t gamble that way; I never did. I’ll bet on a horse. But I’m probably the only guy that came in here today that won’t go to the casino tonight. I don’t like it; I never did it. I never came to Vegas until I started working here for the radio show. That’s why I never met Elvis or any of those guys, because I never came to Vegas in the offseason. Not one time.

Filed Under: Baseball, Gambling, Las Vegas, MLB

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri