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The Ghost of Pete Rose Still Haunts the Reds

By Bill Peterson · August 20th, 2008 · Sports
Tags: sports, ghost, pete, rose, reds
Somewhere, wafting through the Cincinnati airwaves and above Great American Ball Park, the ghost of Pete Rose hovers like a rain cloud.

No matter how thoroughly Rose is discredited on other grounds, his image as a baseball player continues to define the ideal for Reds fans, which means Reds fans will never be happy with their best players until he's forgotten.

Only the Reds could trade away the National League's leading home run hitter in the middle of the season and suffer almost no public relations fallout. Of course, Adam Dunn is in his walk year, the club is going nowhere and Dunn would be a fool to re-up with the Reds, so the trade made some sense.

But it goes deeper than that. As badly as the Reds need Dunn's production, a good many Reds fans couldn't wait for him to leave, so enslaved are they by the paradigm of a baseball player they learned from Rose, whose like has not re-appeared in the major leagues since he left the game 20 years ago.

Understanding that many Reds fans see the game differently and more clearly, it remains that a large and influential swath of Reds fans and commentators simply can't value a baseball player unless his backside is on fire. How else is one to understand the enmity toward a player who consistently hit 40 homers with 100 RBI and 100 runs?

It's one matter to say a player has room for improvement. It's quite another to suggest he leave town because his collar isn't blue enough.

Like no other player, Dunn illustrates the chasm between fans who assess players by images and those who assess players by the numbers. Dunn will never win with the image crowd because of his big, slow approach to the game. If Pete Rose was Charlie Hustle, then Adam Dunn is Big Donkey.

Arguably, though, the value of statistics lies in their usefulness for sizing up players like Dunn and, conversely, for helping us see through players who put on a good show without producing.

Unlike the images, the numbers are real, true facts. And the facts tell a pretty good story about Dunn, even in so-called clutch hitting situations. Without laboring through the various clutch numbers, just consider one in which on the face of it Dunn fares poorly, understanding that the sample size is ridiculously small.

With runners on second and third but no one on first, Dunn has been to the plate 16 times this year with one hit -- so the image crowd says he's poor in the clutch.

But Dunn walked six times, five of them intentional, and hit two sacrifice flies. So the most popular numbers show a .125 batting average (one-for-eight) and a .563 OPS. In reality, he produced positive, useful results in nine of those 16 plate appearances with six walks, two sacrifice flies and a single. And that's his worst split by far.

Look through the other clutch scenarios and you'll find that Dunn produces much better numbers, by far, than the league averages. Indeed, he produces numbers worthy of a clean-up hitter. We might not argue that Dunn is one of the great clutch hitters, but the notion that he's a "poor" clutch hitter is simply an illusion wrought by an image to which Reds fans are especially susceptible.

Reds fans are forever falling in love with players like Ryan Freel, Chris Sabo and Tracy Jones while forever denigrating players like Eric Davis, Paul O'Neill and Adam Dunn. And it's true that all the players in the first group have their merits while all the players in the second group have their demerits.

Still, any baseball club would quickly trade Freel, Sabo and Jones for Davis, O'Neill and Dunn, sweating to pull the trigger before the other party comes to its senses and kills the deal. Any baseball club would trade any one of the first group for any one of the second, praying that the commissioner's office doesn't investigate.

While we're at it, let's trade Brandon Phillips to Toronto for David Eckstein even up. Maybe the Jays will throw in Aaron Hill for a longhaired pitcher.

It seems Reds fans won't be happy until they have 25 medium-sized white guys with dirty uniforms. That club won't win, but many Reds fans won't know why.

Hustle, grit and fierce determination are always to be esteemed in baseball players, but without extraordinary skills they'll never add up to more than a nice try. Pete Rose combined all those attributes like no one else, which is why he added up to all but a Hall of Famer.

Rose wasn't just a dirty uniform with a burning desire to play. He possessed unique skills -- maybe not what we'd usually call athletic skills, but baseball skills like remarkable vision, hand-eye coordination and unmatched presence of mind within the game that helped him become the all-time hits leader. To borrow from a nearby basketball coach, Rose isn't coming through that door, which means whoever comes through that door will fail in comparison with the image.

One goes back to a well-targeted remark some years ago from former Reds first baseman Todd Benzinger when The Los Angeles Times asked him why baseball fans would still support Rose. Benzinger said every major league park should play a Pete Rose highlight reel before every game, then fans could compare that with what they would see for the next three hours. That guy is nowhere to be found on a baseball field anywhere.

We certainly didn't find him standing in left field at Great American Ball Park for all these years. What we did find there was the only guy on the club who could be counted on year after year and day after day. You knew exactly what you were going to get, and it was going to be a lot. It wasn't going to be everything, but no one player can do everything.

Baseball is a team game. Some guys pitch, some guys hit home runs, some guys cut off base hits through the middle, some guys lead. The best producer on the club isn't necessarily the emotional center. Insisting that Dunn's lack of fire killed the Reds ignores the blatant reality that the Reds are full of holes everywhere else one looks.

If you put Pete Rose in left field instead of Adam Dunn, this is still a poor ball club. Rose will tell you he had a lot of help. Joe Morgan didn't need Pete Rose to make himself a good baseball player, and neither did Johnny Bench or Tony Perez.

The four of them together were magic. Which four players on the Reds this year add up to magic?

Ever since Rose went away, Reds fans are pathologically driven to hate on their best players, failing to realize that their second, third, fifth and 10th best players are the problem. So long as the Reds and their fans bank on one great player combining all the virtues to take them anywhere, they'll go nowhere, because Pete Rose isn't coming back.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: letters@citybeat.com


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