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Mudville: July 23, 2024 12:49 pm PDT

Charlie Hustle

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Pete Rose owns the most hits in baseball history, 4,256, and one of the greatest nicknames ever, Charlie Hustle, bestowed on him by Yankee legends Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in a 1963 spring training game after the Reds rookie bunted for a single.

Pete also owns one of baseball’s all-time highlights, crashing into catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game in Cincinnati in front of his hometown fans.

Essentially, that play derailed Fosse’s career.

The night before, Rose was out to dinner with Fosse. In this baseball moment, though, nothing else mattered than scoring the winning run for the National League. Pete lowered his shoulder and barreled through Fosse.

In his new book “Charlie Hustle’’ author Keith O’Brien is the one lowering his shoulder, giving the reader a meticulous, unvarnished narrative of Pete Rose from his humble beginnings on the West Side of Cincinnati to his current baseball banishment, betting life in Las Vegas in five captivating acts: Rise, Shine, Fame, Fall and Wreckage.

When you finish the 332 pages, you have a much better understanding of the man who lives his life just as he played baseball, in a driven, reckless fashion,

What made Pete run?

“I feel like his childhood on the West Side of Cincinnati and his father are crucial to his entire persona,’’ O’Brien told BallNine. “He is never the best player on his youth baseball teams. He is never the best player on his high school teams. He is small, he is undersized. He knows from a young age that he has to play hard just to make it, just to make a team, so that whole persona of hustle is real. It’s in him. It drives him. And I think what’s fascinating about it is the same qualities that make him a success on the field are the same qualities that are going to make him a failure as a person.

“On the field he plays with fury. He goes to extremes. He will not be vulnerable. He will not bend,’’ O’Brien said. “He will believe in every scenario that it is going to work out for him. He’s going to get a hit. He is going to score. He believes in himself fundamentally at all times. But all of those things are the same reasons he is going to fail as a person. He is going to refuse to be vulnerable. He is going to refuse to bend. He is going to believe that he can do anything, and he can’t.’’

O’Brien is a Cincinnati kid, too, so he saw the Pete Rose story develop and understands the world Pete came from on that side of Cincinnati.

“Pete has a certain charisma about him,’’ O’Brien told me. “People have asked me, ‘Did he try to charm me?’

“My answer is Pete is sort of charming, actually. Whether you like him or not. Whether you defend him or not, he is, and we spent a lot of time together,’’ O’Brien explained. “I did 27 hours of recordings with Pete Rose. I spent three days with him in Las Vegas where he lives. I spent two days with him out on the road at appearances and signing shows. I saw him interact with hundreds of people so I do think I got a sense of him. And in our interviews, he talked about things he has never talked about before, but in the end I was pushing him to places he hadn’t gone before, where he didn’t want to go.’’

In the end, that led to a ghosting. But before Pete Rose ended the relationship so much information was gathered by O’Brien, a gifted journalist.

Let me get this out of the way, now. I like Pete Rose. I’ve dealt with him many times and found him fascinating as a player, a manager and as baseball’s professional outcast, banned from baseball, even though he holds one of the game’s most prestigious records.

Pete Rose is so rough around the edges – but is also so charming.

This book is so thorough and deals with all of Pete’s successes and failures in a fair-minded way that is a must read for every baseball fan even if you think you know all there is to know about Pete Rose.

You want to spend time with Pete Rose. You want to talk baseball with him and I have many times, from major league dugouts to his manager’s office at Riverfront Stadium to the back of the Safe At Home memorabilia shop on Main Street in Cooperstown where Rose sets up his own annual money-making induction ceremony table on Hall of Fame weekend, just a few blocks away from the brick building that does not hold a bronze plaque for Pete Rose.

On a gorgeous late-July day in 2018 Pete told me this of the Houston Astros, who that previous October were the sign-stealing, trash can banging World Series winners, “Every team that puts the ball in play a lot goes to the World Series, they put the ball in play a lot,’’ the Hit King said of the Astros.

Thinking to the future that July day like all men of betting action, Pete added: “That’s why I like Boston right now better than the Yankees.’’

A few months later the Red Sox would prove Rose right as they knocked off the Yankees in the ALDS and went on to win the World Series over the Dodgers in five games.

I’m betting Pete Rose made money on those Red Sox.

No one understands the game as well as Pete Rose. I would go so far as to say that in so many ways, Pete Rose is Mr. Baseball.

This book is so thorough and deals with all of Pete’s successes and failures in a fair-minded way that is a must read for every baseball fan even if you think you know all there is to know about Pete Rose.

You don’t.

And here is the ultimate compliment I can offer.

O’Brien digs so deep on Rose and all of the people in his life, his family, his wives, his children, his Cincinnati Reds teammates, MLB, Rule 21(d), investigator John Dowd, a former Marine Corps judge advocate, late commissioner Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent, along with all those former close Rose associates like top toadie Tommy Gioiosa – that in the end, when you finish the last wonderful lines of the book – which I am not going to reveal – you feel like you just finished a full workout at Pete Rose’s infamous Gold’s Gym in Forest Park, north of Cincinnati. Imagine an arm day and a leg day, all together in one workout.

After all that, you need a shower.

Author Keith O'Brien. (Photo via Facebook)

That’s what comes with reading “Charlie Hustle.’’

And like all workouts, in the end, it’s a good thing for both mind and body.

“I don’t want to engage in hero worship,’’ said O’Brien, who now lives in New Hampshire. “I wanted to capture the story as it unfolded, from the ground level with granular reporting. I wanted to capture, not just Pete Rose, but the men around him with all their flaws. Pete Rose is going to make a lot of mistakes here and I think at times it is hard to watch him make that mistake, you can see this train wreck coming from a mile away, but there is no avoiding it for Pete Rose.’’

One of my favorite quotes in the book is so Pete, who still cannot believe he is a baseball victim after all these years.

“The guy who shot the pope got out.,’’ Rose told O’Brien over a glass of orange juice in a Las Vegas restaurant.

“Classic Pete Rose,’’ O’Brien noted.

Pete Rose remains ineligible to be voted on for the Hall of Fame, the result of a 1991 HOF committee decision.

In the book, baseball writer Jack O’Connell is quoted saying what many baseball writers were thinking at the time and still believe: “Give me the opportunity not to vote for him.’’

I have a Hall of Fame vote and would love to be able to make my own decision on Pete Rose regarding the Hall of Fame.

As for his own Hall of Fame thoughts, O’Brien, who does not have a vote, noted, “I didn’t write this book to make an argument for him. I didn’t write this book to make an argument against him. My book is not really about the Hall of Fame, it is not the reason why I wrote it at all. But of course I have thought a lot about it and how we honor athletes in general in this country.

“My prevailing thought is that I think we have lost perspective. We always like to put these guys on pedestals and we ascribe to them moral values that they may or may not have,’’ O’Brien said. “The fact is we don’t know what we don’t know about them and I think we don’t know very much about them personally. For that reason I have come around to the notion that we should honor athletes based on what they did on the field, enshrine them or not enshrine them based on what they did on the field. If their mistakes off the field are so grievous I think we should put those mistakes on the plaque at Cooperstown right next to their accomplishments.’’

Well said.

Pete Rose dives into third base during the Cincinnati Reds game against the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 29, 1975 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The 1963 NL Rookie of the Year, 1973 NL MVP and 17-time All-Star turned 75 years old on April 14, 2016. “Charlie Hustle” is the all-time Major League leader in hits (4,256), games played (3,562), at-bats (14,053) and outs (10,328). (Heinz Kluetmeier / SI)

The irony of this entire Pete Rose story is that Pete may be more famous and his autograph may be more in demand because he is not in the Hall of Fame.

In the book Pete bemoans his fate and the loss of income.

“I hurt me. I hurt my family,’’ he said. “And for guys to say, ‘He hasn’t been punished enough’ – well, what’s enough? “Thirty-one years and $100 million? That’s not enough? Come on.’’

True, but in some ways, the Hall of Fame snub has kept Pete Rose the Autograph Machine in business.

“If he was in the Hall of Fame he would not have that extra element of being on the outside,’’ O’Brien said. “And you’re right. I think it has made him more in demand. It has made him for some fans into this martyr-like figure and that’s probably increased his popularity.’’I asked O’Brien if he thought there was one sport that Pete liked to bet the most.

He laughed and said, “Pete Rose loved March Madness. He loved the college basketball tournament every March. We all think of Pete getting in trouble in 1989, but he is not getting into trouble with something that happened three weeks earlier or three months earlier. This is a freight train a-coming for Pete Rose for like 20 years. Part of the challenge of writing the book was going back and finding the bread crumbs that lead us to that moment in 1989 so I did a lot of reporting on how he got there.

“Where the gambling started and one fascinating thing, in the 1970s, in the peak of the Big Red Machine years, Sparky Anderson would often give Pete Rose days off at spring training so Pete could go watch the games, the March Madness games. We know now that Pete wasn’t just watching the March Madness games he was betting on them. He loved March Madness.’’

O’Brien did some foreshadowing in the book pointing out there could be terrible betting scenarios in the future and this year MLB started off the year with the Shohei Ohtani mess with his gambling interpreter Ippei Mizuhara being charged with bank fraud and accused of stealing more than $16 million from the Dodgers superstar.

Gambling, of course, now is in every phase of MLB World. The slippery slope has gotten a lot more slippery with Rob Manfred selling baseball’s soul.

“It’s crazy, nobody would have expected that we start this season with a gambling controversy swirling around our most famous baseball player but it has been predicted by people that I interviewed for the book, going back to 2021,’’ O’Brien said. “Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball and others have long been predicting that we would have another gambling scandal because of widespread legalization of gambling so it really isn’t a surprise and I do think we are going to see more of it. Gambling is just so prevalent today and so much a part of our culture that I think gambling scandals, controversies are going to be like the New World Order here. I do think it is only a matter a time before another player or umpire or coach or employee gets themselves in trouble like Pete Rose did for betting on the game.’’

You can pretty much bet on it.

As for Pete himself, he says he is sorry.

“Yes, Pete Rose is sorry that he bet on baseball,’’ O’Brien said. “He feels like in his own mind that he has apologized for this countless times. In his own mind he feels like he has reckoned with this even though I think, he hasn’t really. His original apology back to 2004 it comes after 15 years of lies. That apology in 2004 is ultimately jarring to people because it is reversing 15 years of lies and it is also superficial. For all those reasons, I think a lot of fans, a lot of Americans, don’t consider it a genuine apology.

“We want Pete Rose to go on talk shows and cry and be broken, that’s what we want and Pete Rose is just not wired to do that,” O’Brien insisted. “That is not who he is and if we are waiting for him to go on the television and cry about the mistakes that he made we are going to be waiting a very long time because he is just not going to do that.’’

That is not in the makeup of Charlie Hustle.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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