On the morning Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's hit record in Cincinnati, I was already sitting in my box at Riverfront Stadium. A cardboard box, that is. It was last Wednesday, Sept. 11, for you historians, and I was stacked in a storage closet. Suddenly, in mid-afternoon, I was rushed down to the umpires' room, where an attendant rubbed me up with Delaware River mud (a bit roughly, I might add) and tossed me in a canvas bag with five dozen other balls. Just like that I was on the cutting edge of history.
There was something portentous about that evening. I overheard Lee Weyer, who had umpired at third base the night Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run in Atlanta, saying that for the last three years he'd been promising Rose that he would be behind the plate for Pete's record-setting 4,192nd hit. Sure enough, Weyer was working the plate that night. Wednesday was also the 57th anniversary of Ty Cobb's last at bat. Even the weather, sweltering for several days, had turned autumnally cool, as if to invigorate the 44-year-old boy.
It was an electrifying, emotional evening. When we reached the field, there must have been four reporters for every ball. I couldn't imagine how Pete had been able to go through this every night for two weeks. I overheard one of the ball-boys say that Rose had apologized to some of the reporters the night before, telling them that he hoped to get the record hit soon "so you guys can get on with the rest of your lives." That's Pete Rose for you.
Young Cincinnati players kept coming up to Rose during batting and infield practice, asking, "Is this what a World Series is like?" The air had that kind of shivery chill. Reds first base coach Tommy Helms, anticipating the historic moment, put in a special request to Pete: "Don't you let Steve Garvey shake your hand before I do."
While I waited in the dugout with the other 59 balls, we talked anxiously about the prospect of being hit No. 4,192. If it happened tonight, one of us would be immortalized. Only two or three thousand balls have ever made the Baseball Hall of Fame, and only one other from Rose's career. That was his 3,631st hit, the one that broke Stan Musial's National League record. Life can be tough for baseballs that aren't historic. Balls last for maybe a batter or two, then get tossed in a bucket and pounded around in batting practice for a couple of days. Finally they're shipped off to some minor league team for more batting practice and then hammered until their stitching starts to unravel.
On the other hand, Rose's trophy room—which is where I am for the moment, by the way—is the lap of luxury. Pete treats his milestone balls well. He's kept half a dozen to display at home and given away others to people who are near and dear to him. Third-base coach and hitting instructor Billy DeMars, for example, who has been with Pete in Philadelphia, Montreal and Cincinnati, received the baseballs from Rose's 3,500th and 4,000th hits.
Mind you, many baseballs abhor Pete Rose. Rose has knocked us around pretty good. We get irritated when he slam-dribbles us on the AstroTurf. And when he painstakingly wipes the ball marks off his black bat with alcohol...well, it's as if we were dirty or something.
Just before the game, I got to thinking about Ty Cobb's baseballs. I never met any and, as you might understand, we don't particularly like to talk about the so-called dead-ball era. It's a touchy subject. But the truth is, the Hall of Fame doesn't have any of Cobb's balls, and the Tigers don't either. I hear that when Cobb became baseball's alltime hit leader, passing Honus Wagner (3,430) with a 4 for 4 day in Boston back in 1923, newspapers scarcely noticed. No one seems to know where that ball went.
As Wednesday's game began, Weyer carried me and half a dozen other balls out to home plate in his belt bag. I stayed there as the Padres went down 1-2-3 in the top of the first. With one out and no one on in the bottom of the first, Rose came to bat. He took a pitch high for ball one, then fouled the next delivery back. This was my big chance. Weyer grabbed me and tossed me out to Eric Show.
I was so excited I was nearly bursting at the seams. I was out in the open at last. My senses were sharp. I saw the entire crowd on its feet and counted at least 22 Pete Rose banners hung around the stadium. The fans—all 47,237 of them—were chanting his name while wearing, waving and carrying all sorts of Rose paraphernalia. To my great disappointment, however, I saw Kurt Bevacqua playing third base for the Padres. I was hoping for Graig Nettles, who just happens to be the author of my favorite book, Balls.