The car, a torpedo-shaped Maserati, seems wrong, both for the man and the town. It is too fast, too fancy for Pete Rose and the streets of Cincinnati. But Rose in mufti, crouched behind the wheel of his futuristic auto and contemplating a dashboard as complex as a Boeing 747's, is not the primeval figure he appears to be in the stark uniform of the world champion Cincinnati Reds. He is wearing a chocolate pinstriped suit of indisputably modern cut and high-heeled shoes which, in locomotion, propel his stocky body forward like a ship captain's. Rose's macho crew-cut days are behind him; his rich, reddish-brown hair is now as banged as Clara Bow's. He is at his ease arrayed in these galactic togs as he prepares to launch his Italian rocket ship out of a restaurant parking lot in west Cincy.
Rose is on his way to Oxford, Ohio, where he will be the luncheon speaker at a convention of the Ohio Environmental Health Association, Southwest District. This is scarcely a routine speaking engagement for the 1975 World Series' Most Valuable Player, an orator who now commands fees upwards of $2,000 and whose very appearance packs auditoriums in his home state. Only 50 southwestern Ohio sanitarians will hear him this day, but their number will include the uncle of the barmaid who works in the bowling alley across the parking lot from Pete Rose's Restaurant. And that is why he is going out of his way.
"She asked me to do it and I said sure," Rose says, his head snapping back as the Maserati accelerates onto the highway. "Then she said they could only pay me $250. I laughed and told her what I usually get. But I knew this girl raised horses and my little girl, Fawn—she's 10 now—loves horses. So I said, 'Tell you what, I'll do it for a horse.' She said fine, so my fee is a horse for my daughter. Wait'll my agent hears about this. You know what 15% of a horse is?"
It is an uncommonly warm November day, about 70�, and Rose, who was born in the Anderson Ferry neighborhood of Cincinnati and has since moved only a few miles away, but into a $135,000 house in a prestigious area, marvels at the spectacle of a wintry landscape basking in a spring sun. A workman on his lunch break sits alongside the road with his shirt off.
"Look at that," says Rose, whipping by the sunbather. "November in Ohio and a guy's sunning himself." Rose speaks as swiftly, as frenetically, as he moves, punctuating his remarks with bursting expressions of enthusiasm. He also examines his listeners for telltale indications of cynicism. He is street-smart, street-quick to beat an opponent to the put-on. "I come from a mean neighborhood," he will say. "I can be nasty when I have to." When he first became a professional baseball player in 1960, fresh from Cincinnati's Western Hills High School, brush-cut and with a wardrobe highlighted by alpaca sweaters, he was often ridiculed. Neither his teammates nor his opponents could fathom his rapturous manner, his unbridled rah-rahism. "They couldn't believe he was for real," says Reds Pitcher Jack Billingham, who played against Rose in the Florida State League in 1961. "They'd talk about him on buses. I'd hear all about this kid who runs out walks and never stops talking. Well, Pete's just the same now. He hasn't slowed up at all."
There are those today who still do not believe Rose is for real, who suspect him of being some sort of horse-hide wowser. When he started playing they called him " Hollywood" or "Hot Dog," derisive expressions in baseball parlance that substitute for "show-off." When he advanced to the majors, he was shunned at first by his own teammates. The Reds were notably cliquish then, and the brash young hustler did not fit the accepted mold of professional nonchalance. Rose found his friends among the team's blacks, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, who recognized in him, if not soul, at least miles and miles of heart. "I'm laughing today at all those guys who called me names," Rose is now able to say as he hustles himself into the Hall of Fame.
The Maserati draws crowds of college youngsters at stoplights in Oxford, which is the site of Miami University. The car catches their eyes at first, then the driver. "Hey, Pete Rose...All-riiiiiight!" This is Pete Rose country.
The lodge where the convention is being held is an immense peak-roofed structure in rolling countryside above the little town. As Rose walks through the front door he receives an ovation from a crowd of kitchen workers and dining-room help who have been awaiting his arrival in the lobby. "You're my boy," shouts one elderly woman in white. "What'll my mom say about that?" Rose rejoins as the old party dissolves in giggles.
When it is time for Rose to speak he tells familiar jokes, using delegates as characters in them. He kids the few women there—"Don't you go inspectin' no farms all alone, honey." He is a wow. The sanitarians, languid sorts before lunch, cannot get enough of him.
"I never would have gotten a Reds contract if my uncle hadn't been a scout for the team," he tells them. "He convinced them my family matures late. My father weighed only 105 when he was 21. He played semipro football at 185. Played until he was 42. I was a little guy, too, when I first came up, and I play at 200 now. The first scouting report on me said something like, 'Rose can't run, can't throw, can't hit left-handed, but he has a lot of enthusiasm.' I'm still just as enthusiastic about my job. Why shouldn't I be? For me, playing baseball for $3,000 a week is a license to steal.... This last World Series you didn't have to be a Cincinnati fan or a Red Sox fan or a fan of any team. It was just a great baseball Series. Game Six was the most exciting I've ever played in, and I've played in more than 2,000 games. We lost it and I still said so at the time. 'Some kind of a game,' I said to Carlton Fisk. I'm just happy to be a world champion now. I look like a world champion, don't I?" He fingers the flared lapels of his fancy suit jacket as if such apparel were foreign to him. "Got to have this suit back by 2:30."