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Second, he was desperate. Sparky tried to hide this from everyone, but his close friend Jeff Ruby could see it in Anderson's face. Sparky had convinced himself that if he did not do something, something drastic, this team would keep losing, and he would get canned. "They'll fire me in a heartbeat, bubeleh," Sparky said over breakfast. Ruby thought Sparky (who'd managed Cincinnati to three division titles and two pennants in the previous five years) was being melodramatic. "They'd never fire you, Sparky," he said. But worry creased Sparky's face. The Reds had lost as many as they had won; they trailed the Dodgers by four games. Sparky knew he had the best team going. But he also knew that the best teams sometimes faltered, and then managers got thrown out on the street.
Sparky watched Pete take some ground balls that day. He looked O.K. He wasn't smooth, he wasn't agile and, of course, he had that weak arm. But Sparky had to believe that Pete would work hard enough; he would not embarrass himself over there.
"What's news, Sparky?" That was Chief Bender, the Reds' director of the minor leagues. Chief was a good baseball man; he'd been in the game for 25 years. There had been a good pitcher known as Chief Bender in the early part of the century, and Chief was often confused with him. He didn't seem to mind. He never tired of baseball. He went to a game every day—major league game, minor league game, it didn't matter. He had to be around it.
"I'm playing Rose at third," Sparky said.
Chief's face reddened. He looked hard at Sparky, as if he were trying to determine if he had just heard an inscrutable joke.
"Well," Chief began slowly, "Bob's in Arizona."
"Chief, I'm gonna tell you something," Sparky said, and there was a bit of snap in his voice now. "It doesn't matter where Bob is. You know we haven't won [a World Series] yet, and we're starting off slow this year. I look at it this way: It's me or nothing right now. I'm gonna play him at third base."
Chief gave Sparky that hard look again. Then he sort of shrugged and walked off. It was Sparky's funeral.
Ralph Garr was Atlanta's leadoff batter that night. He was fast, and in 1974 he had slapped and run his way to a .353 batting average, the best in the National League. Garr had a unique talent for hitting baseballs precisely where he wanted to hit them. He saw Pete Rose at third base, and he smiled.
Up in the radio booth, Reds announcer Marty Brennaman watched closely. Sparky had told Marty that Rose would play third base, but Marty did not believe him. Now Rose was out there. Marty watched as Garr cracked a ground ball to third. Rose took a step to his left, kind of lost his footing, grabbed the ball, stumbled slightly again, steadied himself, threw the ball across the diamond. "He got him," Marty told his radio listeners. "How about that Pete Rose?"