This Sunday morning started off like most Sunday mornings have since I've become a husband and father.
I woke up around 7:30, grabbed a cup of coffee and a little breakfast, read the New York Daily News, then sat down in front of my TV to watch my two favorite sports programs on ESPN—The Sports Reporters and Outside the Lines—before leaving to meet some friends to play basketball.
I was casually watching both shows while browsing the Web on my laptop when a story on Outside the Lines grabbed my attention. It was a story about Pete Rose on the 20th anniversary of his lifetime banning from baseball.
My first reaction was one of disbelief as I said to myself, "Damn, it's been 20 years already?" Then, all of a sudden, a mood of sadness came over me.
The same way it did 20 years ago.
The year was 1989, and I was an 11-year-old baseball fan. I had only just begun to follow baseball and all its terrific history about three years earlier, as an eight-year-old who watched in amazement as his beloved Mets won the World Series.
Come to think of it, I was raised for as long as I could remember to be a baseball fan. My grandfather, the original Louis Cappetta, was a New York Giants fan. My father, Bronx-born and raised, was a New York Yankee fan. My father never tried to persuade me to root for his team, just like his father never tried to persuade him. What I was taught to be before anything else, even before being a Mets fan, was a baseball fan.
At the age of three, I could tell you George Brett was the best hitter in baseball. At that same age, I could also tell you that Reggie Jackson was the best power hitter in baseball. Those names were drilled into my head by my father (something I would end up doing to my son, as he would be able to say the words Mike Piazza even before he could say mama and dada).
The other name my father taught me was Pete Rose.
By the time Pete Rose would break Ty Cobb's all-time hits record in 1985, I had already been to my first baseball game, fell in love with Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, and was convinced that one day I would be roaming center field for the New York Mets. I had even begun to learn the history of the game—again from my father—so despite being only seven, I knew the name Ty Cobb.
I knew what Rose did was a big deal.
I was hooked on baseball after the Mets won it all in 1986, so by the time 1989 rolled around I totally fell in love with the game. I played every single day I could. I collected baseball cards. I even read books about everything from Hall of Fame players to current players to Ted Williams' The Science of Hitting.
As baseball began to consume my existence, Pete Rose became one of my favorite all-time players. He hustled hard and played the game the way it was meant to be played. Sure, I had only gotten to see Rose play on TV in the twilight of his career—and barely even then—but I thought it was awesome that I was alive to see a player who broke a record held by the great Ty Cobb.
As an 11-year-old kid, I never imagined that I would see a pitcher strike out 5,000 batters, or a player hit more than 755 home runs, or see Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak broken. Guys like Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, and Mickey Mantle were larger than life to me back then. They were almost mythical figures from a time when the game was great, and no player, no matter how good, could ever possibly compare to those guys.
When Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's hits record, to me he became one of those guys, and I was alive to see it. How cool is that?
Also, by 1989 I had begun to feel the pain of baseball heartbreak. First, Dwight Gooden would begin the 1987 in rehab for drug and alcohol abuse, something a child who had been preached at home and in school to "just say no" just couldn't understand. Next, the Mets, who looked like the best team in the NL in 1988, would end up getting beat by the Dodgers in the NLCS that year, denying me and my favorite team another World Series appearance.
Then in 1989, reports began to surface that Pete Rose, now manager of the Cincinatti Reds, had a gambling problem and had probably even been gambling on baseball.
I didn't read much of the news back then, and even if I had I'm not sure I would have understood what was taking place during the investigation. All I knew is that, after recently watching the movie Eight Men Out while having my father explain to me what I didn't understand, I knew Rose was in trouble.
In other words, even I knew you couldn't bet on baseball.
I remember seeing Rose in newspapers and on covers of magazines, and then seemingly out of nowhere, I remember watching on TV as then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti spoke at news conference. He declared he believed Rose had bet on baseball, and in fact Rose had agreed to a lifetime ban from the sport, with the possibility of reinstatement after one year.
The Hit King was no more.
I remember wondering how Pete Rose could do such a thing, and how disappointed I was at the time. Thinking back on it now, I wish I could have kept some of the naïveté I had back then.
It was then I began to realize that these players were not mythical characters at all, but were only human. They just happened to be really good at hitting and throwing a baseball.
So today, 20 years after Pete Rose broke my heart, as I watched the old clips from Giamatti's press conference and Rose's press conference and interviews with Fay Vincent, Mike Schmidt, and Joe Morgan on ESPN, the 31-year-old married father of four stepped aside and the 11 year old boy with big-league dreams reappeared. Today, even after two decades, I'm still disappointed, and frankly, I still don't understand.
The funny thing is, back then, I was sure Rose would be reinstated after one year.