Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Charlie Hustle's hall of fame

Players everywhere revere the man who ran when he could walk, dove when he could slide

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CINCINNATI, Ohio -- Pete Rose drew a walk on four pitches in his first plate appearance in the major leagues. Then he sped to first base.

No slowing him down, either then or 4,256 hits later.

Baseball's all-time hits leader got his start 50 years ago this week, making his debut with the Reds in Cincinnati on April 8, 1963. After getting that walk in his first game and making 11 straight outs in the next few, he finally got on base using his bat -- smacking a triple off Pittsburgh's Bob Friend on April 13.

It wasn't long before the switch-hitting, barrel-chested player from Cincinnati epitomized a no-holds-barred approach to baseball that others imitated, then and now. A half-century later, Charlie Hustle is still in style.

"I don't know if anybody ever has played the game as hard as he has," Washington's Bryce Harper said. "I try to mirror my game after him every single day I go out there."

For Rose, it was nothing out of the ordinary to sprint to first base after a walk or fling himself into the next base, leaving dirt on his chest and scrapes on his forearms.

"I was always a good player, but never the best player, and I was always small," Rose said in a phone interview. "That's why all through my Little League career I was a catcher. I got to high school and I was too damn small to be a catcher, so they put me at second base.

"Because I was small, I always had to do things other people didn't do to try to win games -- be risky on the base paths, slide headfirst, run... from start to go. That's the way I played."

He already had a nickname when the Reds made the surprising decision to start him at second base ahead of the popular Don Blasingame on opening day 1963. After Rose sprinted to first after a walk and reached over the outfield fence trying to catch a way-out-of-here home run during spring training, Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford dubbed him "Charlie Hustle." It wasn't that other guys took it easy. There were plenty of great players around. It was just the importance Rose seemed to attach to every pitch, every at-bat.

"That's the way the game was played, really," said Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who made it to the big leagues two years later with Baltimore. "He just had the flair for it, had the energy -- like a motor that shifted into another gear with his headfirst dives."

Not everyone appreciated it. Some opposing fans and players considered him a show-off -- some of his teammates, too. Rose understood some Reds veterans resented him for replacing the popular Blasingame in the lineup.

Rose was the NL's rookie of the year in 1963. Soon, some young baseball players were trying to mimic his style.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was taken by the way Rose sprinted to first after a walk.

"I know of no other player who has done that, before or since," Schmidt said in an email. "Pete also brought the headfirst slide to the game, which now is commonplace.." It became his signature move.

"Pete was one of the few that did that, one of the few that was strong enough to do it, you know what I mean?" Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Pete Rose -- this guy's built like a running back. Everybody ain't as strong as Pete Rose. It really became popular when Rickey Henderson started doing it -- all those stolen bases headfirst. But Rickey was as strong as Pete Rose."

One All-Star play helped define him -- running over Indians catcher Ray Fosse to win the 1970 All-Star game at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. "Shoot, the biggest thing everybody looks at is probably when he ran over the catcher in the All-Star game," Harper said. "That's an All-Star game, and he's still playing his butt off."

Rose admires the way some of baseball's young stars approach the game in the same gritty way.

"I think we're starting to see a new breed of players that do," he said. "I'm talking about some of the better young players now -- Harper, (Mike) Trout, some of the Reds players. I think they've finally caught on that if you play hard and show some enthusiasm, people are going to like you. They're going to give you the benefit of the doubt if you strike out three times one day or make an error.

"There's a lot of players that play hard, they really do. Just because they don't run to first on a walk don't mean they're not playing hard."

Harper was thrilled to be singled out by Rose for his exemplary hustle.

"That's an incredible honour, to have a great like Pete Rose say that," Harper said. "It's so humbling."

Rose got his final hit in 1986 while player-manager with the Reds. Three years later, he was banned from baseball for betting on his team. He acknowledged in a 2004 autobiography that he bet on Reds games.

In the last few years, he has tried to repair relationships with former Big Red Machine teammates and has apologized for how his gambling scandal affected them.

He remains ineligible for baseball's Hall of Fame.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2013 B11

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