Since I’ve had this blog up and running, I’ve tried to read a baseball book at the beginning of each season. It’s a great way to think about the game and get excited for the upcoming season. As I finish this post, we’re a few games in, and I think we might see some good baseball in Cincinnati this season.
This year, I picked up the new bio of Pete Rose, by Kostya Kennedy. The book is billed as a bio, but it’s really more of a current consideration of Rose as a ballplayer, celebrity, and public figure post baseball banishment. On top of that, it is also a Cincinnati story. Obviously, I loved it.
Kennedy’s bio says he’s from Long Island, and I know this because I suspected several times he is from Cincinnati and kept checking the dust jacket for a local connection. The truth is, you can’t really write about Pete Rose without writing about Cincinnati. And so Kennedy wrote about Cincinnati, too. There’s a chapter titled “West of Vine,” and like any good Cincinnatian would, Kennedy peppers the book with references to neighborhoods like Sayler Park, Price Hill, Indian Hill, and restaurants like Jeff Ruby’s (who was a good source according to the notes), Sleepout Louie’s, and GoldStar Chili. Most national authors would choose to leave out names like this–if you aren’t from here, knowing someone worked at a local GoldStar is kind of irrelevant. But I think it adds a ton of flavor to this story, and it constantly reiterates for the reader the intertwined relationship between this city and her most famous ballplayer.
In an era when ballplayers typically possess nothing but a “you-pay-me-I’ll-play-for-you-no-matter-where-you-are” relationship with their team, the story of Pete Rose is different. He’s very much of this city, and more specifically, of the west side. That Kennedy picked up on this and wrote it the way he did shows he’s a helluva good writer and researcher. Coming on the heels of the last book I read, “The Hard Way on Purpose,” I kept thinking how distinctly midwestern Pete Rose was, and how some of the values Giffels describes about fellow rust-belters also applied to the way Pete was raised and played the game. He took the hard way on purpose. (In a sense, even when he was at his worst, lying and breaking the law, he was sure as hell still taking the hard way.)
So as a nearly two-decade resident of this City, and a student of its history and myths, I loved this book for the simple reason it made Cincinnati a major character.
But Pete is Pete, and it is his story that is the focus. He is a confounding character and Kennedy presents him in full. He defends appropriately and scolds when deserved. The author digs at Baseball when he outlines hypocrisy after hypocrisy in the Hall of Fame selection process (and its history of rule-making). And yet you can almost see him rolling his eyes when he talks about Pete’s ridiculous reality TV show and furniture commercials. He’s fair, and I don’t get the sense he wrote with an agenda.
There are great baseball stories in this book. Kennedy skips some seasons and just focuses on the high and low points (this isn’t intended to be simply a baseball book) but what he covers makes it clear why people are such passionate fans of Pete’s work on the field. The Charlie Hustle name, which at one point wasn’t always a compliment, soon became something people found most appealing. Pete worked harder and cared about the game in a way that was unique.
The betting on baseball is laid out and Kennedy doesn’t even bother with the notion it was a frame-up or a bad charge. It’s presented here as fact, as it should be. Rose is presented as a hero, but with a tragic destiny. Banned from the game he loved. Judged by many who sit in glass houses (and who never had to work as hard as Rose). And plagued by a deep-down knowledge that his decisions hurt so many others.
Which brings this post to his son, Pete, Jr., or “Petey,” as the book refers to him. Initially I struggled with why Kennedy gave so much attention to Rose’s son, and then as the book developed, it was more clear. Petey is patient zero. More than anyone, Petey idolized his dad. More than anyone, Petey loved his dad’s ability and style on the diamond. And more than anyone, Petey was hurt by his dad’s transgressions. Petey’s here because he bears the burden of his dad more than any fan who cheered for #14. There’s lots of Cincinnatians who are big Pete Rose fans. And lots of us who are embarrassed by his recent behavior. But if you want to take those feelings and multiple them by a thousand (or by 4,192), well then talk to Petey. That’s why I think he’s rightly such a focus.
This is a great book. I know it’s going to sound like I’m a homer with all the Cincinnati love in this book. Beyond all that, though, it’s a story about an incredibly compelling public figure and how we judge him. It’s an American story, and one that will resonate far beyond the I-275 interstate. I highly recommend it.
One more thing: if my ravings still haven’t convinced you of Kostya Kennedy’s deep respect for Cincinnati, read his piece on our Opening Day in Sports Illustrated.
Thanks for reading.