I love the Cincinnati Reds the way Republicans love Jesus.
I live and die with their successes (1990, 2010) and failures (virtually every other year since I've been alive). That's why it's not very easy for me to type this next sentence.
Pete Rose is the most overrated player in Major League Baseball history.
Okay, whew, I did it. Note: That faint noise you just heard was my father screaming "You're crazy!" from his living room in Florence, Kentucky to me in Norwalk, Connecticut. Just ignore him, he'll calm down.
I should preface my claim by saying that I do think Pete Rose was a very good baseball player. You can't rack up 4,256 hits without being very good. My argument is simply that Pete Rose isn't one of the greatest players to ever play the game, which is what I think most fans believe.
It's similar—but not as drastic a difference in quality—as the legend that we've created for Joe Namath. Namath was a very mediocre quarterback that had a Suzy Kolber-kissing, larger-than-life personality that America enjoyed. When his Super Bowl prediction came to fruition, we elevated him to legend status regardless of what the numbers indicated.
Rose on the other hand was Charlie Hustle. He was—and is still today—the exact kind of player that the hard working, blue collar, Midwestern fans love to celebrate. He dove head first into first base, played hard during All-Star games, and said things like, "I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball."
Rose played the game the way fans think they would play the game if they had the same athletic ability. He was us, and we could live out our fantasy through him. Unfortunately, the numbers don't back up the myth we've created.
The most impressive statistic a Pete Rose supporter can throw out is his 4,256 hits. However, it's the easiest statistic to dismiss. It's easy to have the most hits in MLB history when you also have the most at bats in MLB history. Rose has 1,600 more at bats than the next closest player; of course he's going to have the most hits!
Praising Rose for having the hits record would be like praising Shaquille O'Neal for being a great free throw shooter simply because he's in the top 20 of free throws made in NBA history. Anybody that watched O'Neal play knows that there is a specific reason why he attempted so many free throws—he couldn't make them. Similarly, Rose has the most hits because he stayed in the game far past his prime, specifically to get the hits record.
Once you take away the aura of the hits record, the rest of the analysis is easy. Rose didn't hit a lot of home runs, even when you adjust for era, he didn't steal a lot of bases, even though he batted near the top of the order, and he didn't bat for spectacularly high averages, on-base percentages, or OPS on a consistent basis. He was a good, but not great hitter.
Compare the statistics of Rickey Henderson, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Ted Williams, Tris Speaker, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio with Pete Rose and you will find that Rose doesn't belong in the conversation. It's time we stop elevating him to this status simply because of his personality and place his ability in the correct historical context.
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