As a kid, Pete Rose could always be found playing in the sandlots that sat in the shadows of Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds, the team for which he dreamed of playing for one day.
He was undersized, didn't possess much power, and many people told him he had no chance to play in the minors, let alone the majors. But his heart, hustle and heady nature -- and having an uncle employed as a Reds' scout -- gave Pete Rose a chance. That's all he needed.
By Rose's third season, hitting over .300 was a formality. He batted over .300 in 15 of 17 seasons, beginning in 1965. All the while, he racked up hit after base hit. He closed in on 3,800 career hits, passing Henry Aaron to become No. 2 all time behind the only man to amass 4,000 hits, Ty Cobb.
In 1985, as the Reds' player-manager, the 44-year-old Rose, in his 23rd major-league season, was zeroing in on Cobb's all-time mark of 4,191 hits, a record that had stood for 57 years.
It's Sept. 11, 1985. The clock in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium reads 7:58 p.m. as Rose emerges from the Reds' dugout to a sellout crowd immersed in a sea of red under a twilight blue sky with orange streaks in the clouds. He is one hit shy of the magical mark of 4,192 career hits as he walks to the plate to face Padres right-hander Eric Show.
The crowd, already standing, bursts into a deafening ovation. Batting left-handed, Rose goes into his familiar crouched stance, his hands wrapped tightly around the handle of his black bat. Show delivers the first pitch, high and away, ball one. Chants of "Pete! Pete! Pete!" floods the stadium as Rose fouls
the second pitch down the left-field line to even the count at 1-1. Flashlights pop, one after another. The crowd of 47,237 stands as one.
Rose had tied Cobb three days earlier in Chicago's Wrigley Field, in the final game of a road trip. The next day, the Reds were home to begin this series against the Padres, much to the relief of Reds fans who wanted to witness history at home. But Rose benched himself in the series opener against Padres left-hander Dave Dravecky. The next night, Rose went 0-for-4.
Pitch No. 3 from Show is high and tight. The crowd is going wild, anticipating the moment they have all been waiting for. The next pitch is a middle-in fastball. Rose whips his bat around and slaps the ball into left-center field. The ball slices gracefully and bounces off the turf right in front of Carmelo Martinez, who fields it on one bounce.
The ballpark explodes with fireworks as streamers and confetti float onto the field. Rose speeds around first base, comes to a screeching halt, claps his hands and gives first-base coach Tommy Helms a low-five as Riverfront Stadium bursts into celebration. The Reds' bench clears as the players rush toward first base to mob and congratulate Rose. Tony Perez and Davey Concepcion, Rose's famous Big Red Machine teammates, jump in and hoist Rose up on their shoulders.
"I could feel I was gonna get a hit," Rose would say later. "I approached the game a little differently tonight. I was bearing down and the bat felt good and light to me. I said to myself, 'Let's go, let's get on base already.'"
With the celebration engulfing him in a stirring seven-minute ovation, Rose removes his batting helmet and waves to the crowd. "I saw this hit in my mind a million times," he would later tell the media. Then, as he steps back on first, he takes a breath, turns to Helms, his face quivering. All the emotion of the moment suddenly overwhelms him. The man of an iron will and rugged face breaks down in tears. He throws his arms around Helms and throws his head on his friend's shoulder and sobs.
From the dugout comes a uniformed young man, the one wearing the same number as Rose, No. 14, the one with the same name on the back of his white Reds jersey. Petey Rose, the 15-year-old redheaded son of Rose and the Reds' batboy, falls into his father's arms at first base in an emotional tearjerker of an embrace. Tears flow like champagne did during the Reds' Rose-led championship celebrations.
"I was doing all right until I looked up and started
thinking about my father [who died in 1970]," Rose would tell the media. "I saw my father and Ty Cobb looking down on me. I didn't plan on being emotional. I don't have any experience at that."
Nearly 20 minutes later, the game resumes. Rose winds up scoring both Cincinnati runs. Besides his record-setting single, he also triples. He then closes the curtain on the historic night by making the final out on a diving stop at first base on Steve Garvey's liner to preserve the Reds' 2-0 victory. Rose excitedly hops up and down and slaps palms with teammates. Still hustling.