The practice of idolizing athletes

Fred Bruning September 23 1985

The practice of idolizing athletes

Fred Bruning September 23 1985

The practice of idolizing athletes


Fred Bruning

Chasing willy-nilly after Ty Cobb’s base hit record this summer, Cincinnati Reds player-manager Pete Rose illustrated the virtue of pluck and determination, yes, but the fellow we call Charlie Hustle made a point, too, about life in these United States. Nothing is more important to Rose than performance—the bottom line—and with that noble proposition his countrymen concur.

Results are what we like. Why else would Americans watch such shows as The Price is Right and Battle of the Network Stars? Why do we attend turtle races and clam-eating contests? We are achievement junkies and as such have only the highest regard for Rose, who, it is said, aggravated his first wife by figuring his batting average at the breakfast table. Nonsense, said Rose, his stats always were published in the morning paper anyway.

For us, Rose is the right stuff. We love his enthusiasm, his energy, his kamikaze approach to the national pastime. “You got to make the most of what time you got,” Rose says. That he does—and how. In private life Rose is said to be a rather sedentary individual who camps for hours before the television set watching every baseball game that comes across the cable. But whatever his demeanor off the field, Rose gives the impression that upon donning knickers and emerging from the dugout, he becomes a nuclear reactor.

The fellow is 44, after all, and still races around the bases as though chased by demons. He even dives through dirt, arms outstretched—a stubby Superman who prefers belly flops to supersonic flight. Standing at the plate with that primordial pose of his, Rose could be Paleolithic man preparing to knock an ibex into the cheap seats. Once, Rose nearly decapitated a catcher while crossing home in an all-star contest—an exhibition game no less!

Great are the rewards of such commitment, at least in the case of Pete Rose. He is a millionaire, or ought to be, if his investment counsellor operates with even minimal competence. Wife number 2 is a former Playboy bunny. Cars, horses, a swell home—Rose has the world on a string. He seems to enjoy himself immensely, and who wouldn’t? Here is the scruffy kid from workingclass parents being pursued by reporters and mini-cam crews. He answers questions both cosmic and mundane and

eagerly expounds upon the Big Knock, as it now is known—the stroke that last week gave him 4,192 hits, more hits than anyone. Pete Rose, one of a kind.

Who can say there is anything wrong with what Rose represents? Dedication, hard work, confidence, self-esteem— these are the character-building qualities we assume to be especially American. The notions of responsibility and resourcefulness run deep in this culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote odes to self-reliance that Pete Rose certainly never encountered—he admits to reading only two books, one of them The Pete Rose Story—but the ballplayer got the idea anyway. We are persuaded from childhood that fate is something of a pushover—that life is precisely what we make it.

Oh, we are strongheaded on this point. All the bag ladies, winos, panhandlers, welfare cases, runaway teenagers, unwed mothers, battered kids, unem-

We love his enthusiasm, his energy, his kamikaze approach to the national pastime. For us, Rose is the right stuff

ployed steelworkers, indigent old folks, mental patients and migrant farmhands won’t make us change our minds. We have heard all the “unhappy childhood” stories, and we say humbug!

Once a person has made it, of course, we can be tolerant, indeed, especially if the individual is a well-paid athlete. In Pittsburgh several baseball players have testified at the trial of an accused drug dealer who allegedly provided cocaine for major leaguers between 1980 and 1984. Some of the testimony suggests that cocaine was as plentiful in the locker room as foot powder, but no matter. On the day Keith Hernandez, the Mets’ first baseman, took the stand, a fan in New York summed up the situation. “My only question is, will he be able to get to L.A. in time for tonight’s game?”

Pete Rose might have appreciated the remark. He is a fellow for whom the game has been paramount—a firecracker of a guy who made sure things went his way. Pete’s father was an amateur athlete, and the kid wanted to be just like Dad. At school Pete was so-so, and when he broke into organized ball he wasn’t much better. But even in the

minors the man knew how to hustle— and hustled so hard his teammates thought him positively unreal. Can you believe this hotdog? Rose believed, and sprinted directly toward the big time.

In the majors he was an instant success—Rookie of the Year in 1963, the ultimate singles hitter, a teammate you could always count on. Little has changed 23 seasons later. Says Rose: “For any player who’s my age, what matters most is not when you lose the physical skills. It’s when you lose the enthusiasm.”

Rose’s outlook has been passed on to his son, 15-year-old Petey. The youngster is a promising ball player with many of his father’s characteristics, including a well-ordered sense of priorities. “I want to go straight through the minors and get to the big leagues,” the boy told Sports Illustrated. “It’s all I want to do.” Petey added: “I hate school. I like gym and lunch. And girls. I hate everything else.”

As an American teenager of considerable privilege, Petey can be forgiven if he hates school, loves girls and wants to rocket to the majors. No doubt he is familiar with the rousing beer commercial that asks bluntly, “Who says you can’t have it all?” Often broadcast during sporting events, the ad presents a melange of fine-looking people pursuing careers, making no compromises, drinking low-cal beer. Great stuff.

Petey’s dad may have seen the ad a few times himself. “Fast cars, fast horses, a young wife,” he told an interviewer. “That keeps you young.”

Still, if he has not done so already, Pete, at some point, may feel called upon to inform his son that human enterprise sometimes goes beyond what is captured in the box scores and beer ads. Interspersed with the pep talks on grit and singlemindedness, perhaps there even will be a word or two about those who forever find themselves on the bench—the poor slobs who never have a winning season.

Granted, it might be difficult to keep the kid’s attention. Petey’s mind is much on his 16th birthday these days. That’s when he will be able to drive and, not surprisingly, the boy is hoping for a car. Petey says his dad promised him a red Porsche if he batted over .400 during the high school season. The lad hit 28 points higher. Who says you can’t have it all?

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.